Ruta Sepetys’s Between Shades of Gray is a beautiful, emotionally draining book about the genocide of the Baltic people by the Soviet Union during World War II. I had never before read any books addressing this horrific aspect of the war; in fact, I’m not sure I even knew that this genocide had taken place. After being imprisoned and held as slaves for ten to fifteen years, the surviving Baltic people returned home to Soviet-occupied countries, only to find that they could not speak of their experiences without being arrested or sent back to the labor camps. They were silenced, and their trauma was hidden.
This YA historical fiction novel is about the Vilkas family, who are whisked out of their home in Kaunas, Lithuania, in the middle of the night on June 14, 1941. Kostas, the father, is separated from his family and imprisoned. The other three–mother Elena, daughter Lina, and son Jonas–are placed in cramped, dirty train cars and transported for weeks to an unknown destination. When the train finally stops, they find themselves on a beet farm, where they must live and work under horrific conditions and with extremely little food.
Lina, a very talented artist, begins sketching scenes from their daily life. She hides most of the drawings in her suitcase, but some she mails or passes on in the hopes that they will reach her father and inform him of their whereabouts. In the meantime, Elena, Lina, and Jonas love and support one another and their fellow prisoners as best they can.
Eventually, the three are transported to a Siberian camp in the Arctic Circle, where they must work and survive in sub-zero temperatures. They live in a mud hut and have very little food and no access to medicine. Blizzards pummel their little hut nearly every day. They must figure out how to survive the first winter, no matter what it takes.
Between Shades of Gray is a tearjerker and a painful read. But it is an important book, and a story that needs to be told.