Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
“Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother's was worth a pocket watch.” There are some books that everyone - adults and children alike - should read. BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY is one of those books. I have always had a special place in my soul for stories from World War II. This probably stems from a very early reading of Corrie Ten Boom's The Hiding Place, and then later readings of The Diary of Anne Frank and Marcus Zusak's The Book Thief. I don't take pleasure in reading about the heart-wrenching events that transpired during the war, but I do take heart and find hope in the relentless human spirit. Even in the midst of death and abuse and the most rotten conditions, humans have an uncanny ability to find hope where there is none, and to survive when it would be so much easier to just give up. This is the type of story you will find within the pages of BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY.
Most of us are familiar with the atrocities that the Jewish people suffered in the Holocaust. When I think of World War II, my thoughts inevitably drift to concentration camps, yellow stars on shoulders, and horrifying photos of skeletal men and women. It seems, however, that few people, myself included, actually know much of anything about what happened to the people of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia at the hands of Stalin and the Soviet Union. I was horrified, but not shocked, to learn that the tendrils of hate and unspeakable violence reached much further than I originally knew.
BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY tells the story of the Vilkas family, and closely follows Lina Vilkas, a fifteen year old girl on the brink of an exciting year ahead, with the promise of a glittering summer and a prestigious art school before her. Then, with a thudding knock at the door in the middle of the night, all of Lina's dreams are shattered as she, her mother and younger brother are carted off in secret with dozens of other Lithuanians to Siberia.
Lina's story is not unlike the thousands and thousands of stories told by countless survivors of the Holocaust. Heartless soldiers, degrading conditions, little to no food, abuse, death, and sickness abound. However, despite these dark conditions and the evil lurking around every corner, Lina and her family and friends found hope and jubilation in the smallest of things - an unexpected kind gesture, a small piece of bread, a book, a comforting hand on the shoulder. While reading BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY, my emotional pendulum swung from one end to the other. I felt what Lina felt, alternating between despair and rage to hope and joy.
Not everyone has a happily ever after, and in fact, the ending of BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY is purposely left a little open-ended, but this doesn't detract from the beauty of the story. Ultimately, this story is about love. Love of country, love of family, love of friends, and most notably, love of our enemies; after all, they're the ones that need it the most.
I must commend Ruta Sepetys for bearing witness to the horrors suffered by the lost people and the survivors of the Soviet annihilation. Now, I am also a witness. And if you read this book, you will be, too. These stories must be told, and we must read them, so that we can expose the dark secrets that keep our brothers and sisters in bondage, and that allow such depravity to flourish. How can we prevent genocide, if we don't talk about it? How can we stamp out hate if we don't shine a light in the dark places in which these diseases of the heart and mind spread?
How much is a human life worth? When we read and talk about books like BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY, we have the opportunity to change the answer to this question with a resounding, "Everything."