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#BookReview-Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

I love reading historical fiction about the Second World War II and was superbly delighted when a fellow book lover, blogger and a dear friend sent me this book as a surprise. Thank you so much Tulika, I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed reading this one. Thanks for introducing me to this author and I will be looking forward to reading more of her books in future.

Title: Between Shades of Gray

Genre: Historical Fiction / World War 2

Publication: Penguin

Author: Ruta Sepetys

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book review- world war 2- russia - stalin- nazi- germany- jews-lithuania


15 year old Lina Vilkas is your average teenager who dreams about boys and gossips with her cousins about their crushes. She is a budding artist and has just won admission to a prestigious art school. Her father is a provost in the local university and has interest in politics and social issues. Lina loves to sit in or eavesdrop on her fathers meetings with his friends as the political news intrigues her. But her parents keep both their children away from such discussions.

Off late she has noticed too many hushed conversations between her parents even as her mother has been quietly sewing her jewellery and other small items into the lining of her coat. Lina is perplexed with their attitude but keeps quiet about it. Her eleven year old brother Jonas is blissfully unaware of all this and loves to get into mischief.

“Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.”
― Ruta Sepetys, Between Shades of Gray

Lina finds her neat world shattered violently one night when the Soviet secret police, NKVD, march unannounced in her middle class home and bulldoze her family into leaving with them. Her father had not come home since a day before and now the herding out by NKVD was all the more terrifying. Together with her younger brother Jonas and mother Elena, Lina packs up a few essentials before being put onto a truck already packed with people. Later they are all thrust into a cattle car of a goods train.

The train begins its journey and no explanation is offered by the secret police. Any resistance is met with being shot or maimed. Several mothers struggle to keep their teenage sons with them as the police has segregated able bodied men into separate compartments. Sometimes the officers would open the car doors and allow the prisoners to see the sky and scenery but mostly they were all kept locked in.

“I clung to my rusted dreams during the times of silence. It was at gunpoint that I fell into every hope and allowed myself to wish from the deepest part of my heart.”
― Ruta Sepetys, Between Shades of Gray

Through several stops and starts, they are all dumped into a prisoner camp in northern Siberia where the brutal cold and sparse housing conditions, take a toll on their physical health. Most of them start suffering from dysentery, lupus,etc and either die or barely recover. They are all forced into hard labour without any proper nourishment. Most scavenge around in the garbage bins to find kitchen scraps to feed themselves on.

Elena keeps the spirit up of her children and manages to bond with several of the other prisoners who soon start looking at her for instructions. She is offered incentives if she chooses to help the soviet police in spying on other prisoners. But she refuses and is made to work hard without breaks. She uses her silver and other items to trade for news, food and even get letters across to relatives.

“I thought of Munch as I sketched, his theory that pain, love, and despair were links in an endless chain.”
― Ruta Sepetys, Between Shades of Gray

Lina is frantic to find her father and starts scavenging for news of him through other prisoners. She decides to record her journey on scraps of paper in hope that her art will reach her father and let him know that they are all safe. Soon her art recordings take on a serious note as she hopes that when they are all dead, someone will find these and know what happened to the Lithuanian prisoners.

“Krasivaya. It means beautiful, but with strength. Unique.”
― Ruta Sepetys, Between Shades of Gray

She strikes up a romantic relationship with a seventeen year old boy Andrius, who is a prisoner along with his mother. She longs to tell her cousins about him and misses her gossip sessions with them. This relationship is one of endurance and hope amongst all the daily horror they are forced to face.

After 15 months, the Soviet police packs them up and marches them through even colder harsher country to reach Trofimovsk on the Laptev sea which is the end of the world. Here on the Arctic circle, they are made to build barracks for the Soviet police while they are left out in the cold. Struggling to survive the bitterly cold conditions, the prisoners make a shack out of scraps of timber, mud and sea weed. It’s not enough to keep the cold out but it was better than being out in the harsh cold.

“But all of the survivors had one thing in common, and that was love. They survived through love. Whether love of friend, love of country, love of God, or even love of enemy—love reveals to us the truly miraculous nature of the human spirit.”
― Ruta Sepetys, Between Shades of Gray

Through sheer ingenuity and will power, most of the prisoners survived and are finally rescued by the Americans. They had been in the prison camps for 12 long years and journeyed over 6500 miles through harrowing conditions.

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Lasting Impression on me:

I have never read or even been aware of the brutalities Stalin perpetrated on his neighbouring countries of Lithuania, Estonia and Lativia. Most of these horrors have gone unrecorded as the prisoners were forced to keep quiet and released only after assurances were extracted. Despite having read accounts of Hitlers oppression, I couldn’t relate with the atrocities committed by Stalin on people who opposed him. I wonder what did he really achieve by tearing apart families and straying nations? Not to mention the insane human suffering he brought about to accomplish his purpose. This book has been an eye opener for me and I am going to look out for more of such accounts from this era.

Sepetys has written a fictional tale based on first person accounts of the survivors she interviewed. She herself is a descendant of one such survivor of this horror. Her writing is crisp and she hasn’t embellished the nightmare with her words as much as she has allowed the characters to express their story in the most uninhibited form. I have loved the way she has shown their bravery and courage through the most horrific times by highlighting their endurance.

Despite the horrific odds, most of the prisoner bond over their hardships enough to share food, emotions and courage. They boost each other without the thought of any reward or gratitude. The sheer human story in this tale is heart warming and heart wrenching st the same time.

The two maps marking the journey and the distance covered through Russia and Arctic are very helpful in making the readers aware of the enormity of this travel that the prisoners were made to go through.

I was not too thrilled about the flashbacks into Lina’s past to build up the narrative. Some of that seemed pretty irrelevant and repetitive to me. The ending also seemed a little abrupt. It’s only the epilogue which tied up some of the loose bits but I would have liked for more here.

My Rating:

Having said that, I would recommend this book to my readers who love to read about World War 2 era. I am giving this one a 4/5 stars and will be on a look out for more books by the author.

Leaving you with this excerpt from the book to allow you to gauge the horror and hope mingled together.

“It is estimated that Josef Stalin killed more than twenty million people during his reign of terror. The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia lost more than a third of their population during the Soviet annihilation. The deportations reached as far as Finland. To this day, many Russians deny they ever deported a single person. But most Baltic people harbor no grudge, resentment, or ill will. They are grateful to the Soviets who showed compassion. Their freedom is precious, and they are learning to live within it. For some, the liberties we have as American citizens came at the expense of people who lie in unmarked graves in Siberia.”
― Ruta Sepetys, Between Shades of Gray

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25 thoughts on “#BookReview-Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

  1. Loved your honest review, Shalini. More than keen to read it now. Especially because the story revolves around the WWII and that, despite the brutality of the war, always holds a certain appeal to me.

    1. Thanks so much Esha. I really loved the book from the POV of the Baltic states and what they were forced through. The amount of strength and will power demonstrated by the captured Lithuanians is heartbreaking. I do hope you read this book as such books should not only be read but shared with others too. This narrative is important and should reach maximum number of people.

  2. Sounds like a very interesting read. I haven’t read too much about Russian camps, though I am aware of some of the atrocities and the human toll during Stalin’s reign. I’m adding this to my TBR.

    1. Oh you will love it. It’s not as brilliant as The Book Thief but the atrocities committed and the way the prisoners coped with it will make you want to weep. So much hatred in the world and so easy to hate. It makes me wonder at our current times and hope for better common sense and love to help us overcome it all.

      Please do share your thoughts on the book once you read it.

  3. This brings to mind how the Jews suffered at the hands of Hitler. I too was unaware about Stalin and his atrocities.
    I too found this book interesting as I always find myself attracted towards stories revolving around WW 2.
    Thanks for the review, Shalz!

    1. I also realised that it was only Hitler’s oppression that was in my mind when I thought of World War 2 but this book reminded me of Stalin and his cruelty too. How horrific were these two and what did they achieve by doing what they did? I wonder at their belief system and if they ever believed in god? What do you think?

  4. This is the first time I am coming across a narrative around Stalin’s oppression. Wasn’t Russia part of the allied forces and yet they were carrying out their own Nazi-like agenda.
    I trust your review of this book and am marking this book for future reading.

    1. Gosh I am not sure of that bit of history Anamika- I think Stalin was on his own trip and didnt align with the Allies at all. This book bought to light a bit of history that I think has been eclipsed out of our text books. I dont remember ever reading about this bit of World war history.

  5. Stories based on world war 2 always leave an impression. I love the storyline but I can understand that it could be hard to visualize some of the incidents. The war brings so much cruelty and hatred. Thank you for the review. Will keep this title in mind.

    1. Yes the World wars were terrible and bought out so much hatred and cruelty in the people. The way human beings were tortured just because they were of another race/religion, truly boggles the mind. But then thats whats happening in India at present when we see the Delhi riots that just happened.

    1. Thanks Corinne; I do hope you pick this one up for a read as such tales need to be read by more and more people.

    1. I hope you do Reema for it’s just too good as it’s from another perspective. So far I had only been indulging in Nazi Germany stories but this one has made me research for more now

  6. I’d read Salt to the Sea by the same author and loved it. Glad you enjoyed this one. I too had no clue of Soviet atrocities before I read her book. And yet it’s amazing how the worst of times bring out the best in some people.
    I’m putting it on my TBR too.

    1. You gifted me this book but haven’t read it? That’s so like me. I have been gifting books I love to read to other peeps, waited for their review and now they are on my bday wish list. I really loved this book and will now look out for more of hers. Thanks for introducing me to her.

    1. Thanks Ramya, it sure is a very interesting book as it delves into a part of history from an angle that was not so popular.

  7. I haven’t read much in the genre, but am adding this to my TBR. Thanks for such a detailed and thoughtful review, Shalz.

    1. It’s a genre I devour as I am very moved and affected by stories of this era. I hope you do read this one Shaan.

    1. Thanks Vinay. I was really amazed at this piece of fiction as it was based out of Germany. Dont recall much of World War Two outside of Hitlers atrocities

  8. I loved the author’s Salt To The Sea. The writing style is brilliant and WWII dramas are love!

    I’m going to pick this one soon.

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