Book Review: Between Shades of Gray, A Fascinating But Incomplete Story
Books of historical fiction are not usually my favorite because subject matters in that genre tend to show humanity at its worst (e.g. during slavery, Hitler’s era, etc.), but if a book in that genre is done well, it’s enlightening and enjoyable. Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, for example, is an amazingly difficult story told with skill and hope. The Help by Kathryn Stockett was full of real-feeling characters who not only fleshed out what it was like to live in 1960’s southern America for both whites and blacks, but also cheered and warmed me through their flawed but hopeful way of dealing with their particular circumstances. It was also told with remarkable voice. Between Shades of Gray, a book by Ruta Sepetys about a Lithuanian family who experiences torture at the hands of the Soviet secret police under Stalin’s reign, is similar in theme to that of The Hiding Place. In that respect, it’s very enlightening. As a fictional reimagining, it’s fascinating. As a story, though, it fell short.
The story is told through the eyes of 15-year-old Lina Vilkas, who is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. At the beginning of the book, Soviet officers barge into her middle-class home in the middle of the night, and, with no explanation, take her, her mother, and little brother captive. They’re crammed into the filthy box car of a train with a number of other Lithuanians they don’t know, and are made to endure a six-week long trip through Siberia, only to end up at a work camp north of the Arctic Circle. Lina and her fellow travelers are taunted and starved along the way, such that many die during the trip, and when they arrive at the work camp, they’re given the bare minimum to survive, meaning a corner of the floor of a shanty to sleep on, showers every six months, and hardly any food. In short, it is a horrible experience.
Lina and her family are fictional, but the things that they experienced happened to actual people, according to Sepetys, who extensively researched the travails of people from Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia who were caught between a despotic Stalin—who considered anyone educated to be anti-Soviet—and a ruthless Hitler. “It is estimated that Josef Stalin killed more than twenty million people during his reign of terror,” Sepetys says in her Author’s Note. “The Baltic States…lost more than a third of their population during the Soviet annihilation.” By those estimates, the damage Stalin did was more than three times as bad as that done by Hitler.
Those people who survived were freed after ten to fifteen years, but returned to find that the Soviets had occupied their homes, assumed their names, and enjoyed all of their belongings. They were treated as criminals, forced to live in restricted areas, and constantly watched by the KGB. Speaking about their experience meant immediate imprisonment or deportation back to Siberia. It wasn’t until the mid-1990’s, when Soviet occupation of their countries ended, that they were able to gain their independence, and most chose just to quietly resume their lives as best they could instead of rail against the injustices they’d experienced.
But As a Story…
If a story makes me really feel for the characters—whether fictional or real—and what they’re going through, I like it a lot. If it tells about injustices that have been done in the past that I can’t do anything about, I don’t like it. It frustrates and scares me, and there’s no positive outlet for that frustration or fear. And if a story doesn’t finish, I like it even less. Lina’s tale ends just after (spoiler alert) her mother dies and her little brother comes close to it. The story structure, if one could be plotted, would be: beginning: normal, beginning the descent; middle: getting worse and worse; end: the worst. The epilogue, a short missive penned by Lina some 15 years later, says she survived and things turned out okay for her, but there’s not much more of an arc of change than that for her. Some side characters experience subtle changes of heart, but not the main characters. In these respects, I was very disappointed in the story.
That being said, it’s still a fascinating and informative read. I would encourage everyone to read it.