In the summer of 1941, 15 year old Lina’s life changes forever: she, her mother, and her 10 year old brother are rousted from their home in the middle of the night by NKVD soldiers, loaded into a truck, and taken to a rail yard. There, thousands of other Lithuanian teachers, intellectuals, soliders’ families, lawyers, bankers and everyday citizens are crammed into stock cars to begin the long deportation to the Siberian gulags. The conditions on the crowded train are terrible and people succumb daily to disease, exhaustion, and starvation. When they arrive at the gulag the treatment from the guards is merciless, the working and living conditions are horrible, and the rations are barely enough to keep people alive. But a community develops among the prisoners, spearheaded by Lina’s mother, and for a time the family adjusts to their imprisonment. Things take a sharp turn for the worse when the family is herded onto railcars yet again and this time their destination promises little hope for survival: they are sent to an outpost above the Arctic circle on the verge of winter, where death and disease are all that awaits them. And yet, despite the horrors and loss Lina, her mother, and brother endure every day, their love for each other and their fellow prisoners sustains them through their darkest moments and their deepest losses.
From the first pages to the last, my impressions of Ruta Sepetys’ extensively researched historical novel, Between Shades of Gray are best stated as: somber; horrifying; heartbreaking; exhausting; and crushing. But like the cover, there is a profound sense of compassion, hope, and courage that springs out of the torment and suffering these characters face. Lina’s family and some of the other prisoners retain their humanity despite the treatment they receive and the hopelessnes of their situation, and they provide a powerful lesson to each other and to the reader. On many pages I was reminded of such gripping works as Man’s Search for Meaning and Night: in the face of unbelievable cruelty and against all the odds, human beings can choose to be humane. No message is more powerful or more necessary to be told again and again.
- Posted by Cori