Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
How many people have had confused search results with this book when confusing the “Between” and “Fifty” title words? Amusing stories aside, though, this book centers on the little-told situation of refugees on the Soviet-side of World War 2. It depicts the extremities of starvation, Siberian death in the cold, and the inhumanity capable by humans. It features tragedy and hope, with a very real depiction of the value of dignity despite the consummately degrading, tarnishing situations that make dignity seem impossible.
I listened to the audio of this book, but I think I would have much preferred to experience it through text. For the first third of the book I was somewhat confused and put-off by the overall storytelling and content of this book. I didn’t realize that it was a young adult novel and so didn’t understand the emotional pallet being applied, nor the choices in the voice of the main character (both of which are somewhat different from the adult-targeting war stories I’ve experienced). My other “young adult” war novel most recently was Anna and the Swallow Man, which is a deeply and utterly different type of book despite being set in the same time period as this. Perhaps the largest difference is that Between Shades of Gray is deeply concerned with community and with the privation of groups as a whole, with families, and with communal hope versus selfishness. The main character, young teenager Lina, is a talented artist from an unfortunately bourgeois family, although there is little of privilege or spoiling in her actual disposition (to be clear, she is the child of a well-off professor, not any kind of aristocrat). Throughout the story she transports the reader back and forth between happy memories and impossible hardship, a storytelling method that Ruta Sepetys uses to good effect. Lina’s artistic eye is effective as she captures the world around her. Curiously, she never draws her mother, who appears throughout the story as the embodiment of human dignity and compassion while she sacrifices everything to protect her children and to make their fellow sufferers into a surrogate family.
I had some concerns while reading the book which will require some spoilers to elucidate. To those who want to retain the element of surprise as they experience this book, just know that the elements of writing/storytelling that I was worried about were resolved to my full satisfaction, so you needn’t concern yourself with the spoilers below for fear that the book contains some secret defect that will betray the reader.
One of the major fears I had while experiencing this story was that the young-adult gearing of the book would cause Ruta to compromise the stark hardships with trivialities. I was particularly worried that she would violate the story with teenage romance in the midst of starvation, as seemed threatened during Lina’s growing interest in strong jaw-lines, nice hair, and the handsomeness of certain boys. One of the most impressive pleasures I found in this book, though, is that despite the story flirting with teenage romance, it doesn’t ever spoil itself with it. The ending of the story is true in the way a story should be – consistent with itself and to the realities it is depicting. The possible exception to this is that Lina herself never experiences the sexual abuse that would seem so likely for a 16-year old girl in her circumstances; nonetheless, Sepetys ensures that that sort of horror remains on the fringes; while choosing not to make sexual abuse one of the topics of an already harrowing tale, she makes clear that it is present in the stories of many fellow refugees. In the end, Lina’s chapters of greater boy-interest proved more to coincide with her developing maturity than with any selling-out of the author. The story as a whole ends rough – much more bitter than sweet – but for all of its horror it manages to cut to the quick of true humanity and what remains to survive as hope flickers and, in some cases, dies.
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Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys