Book Review: Between Shades of Gray

Between Shades of Gray
Narrated By: Emily Klein
Published By: Penguin Audio
Publication Date: March 2011
Audio Length: 7 hours, 47 minutes
Source: Library
Audience: Young Adult - Historical Fiction

On The Writing & The Story:

Wow. This book will haunt me for quite some time. Ruta Sepetys has given a voice to people who have often not had a voice in WWII history. Everyone knows about Hitler and his agenda to purify Germany. However, many people are not aware that Joseph Stalin murdered millions of people as well; in addition to those he had executed many more will die from deportation, forced labor, and harsh conditions. Stalin ordered a purge throughout the Soviet Union sending many of the most educated people behind the Iron Curtain to work camps. As a history major, I was aware of the atrocities that Joseph Stalin committed against his people and the people of the countries he invaded, but I did not study the events in depth. I am always interested in expanding my knowledge of history so this read seemed like a perfect chance to learn more about Stalin and the deportations.

Between Shades of Gray is largely about the experience of Lithuania after Stalin rises to power. Lina, the main character, is fifteen in 1941 when Soviet soldiers arrive at her home and order her mother to prepare to leave. Lina isn't sure what is happening and she never expects that she will not see her home again for many years once she exits the front door. I can't imagine how scary something like this must have been. I honestly don't know how I would respond in this situation. Much like Lina, I probably would have been bewildered and confused by the whole ordeal. However, Lina soon realizes that the situation is much more desperate than she could have ever imagined. Along with her mother and younger brother, she is loaded onto a truck that is headed out of Lithuania and into Siberia. Her father has also been taken by the Soviets, but he will not be joining his family in the work camp; he has been taken to prison.

The conditions of the travel, living situations, and work camp labor brought tears to my eyes. It broke my heart to realize just how terribly these people were treated by Stalin and the Soviet military. It also didn't make sense to me that Stalin would deport the most educated. I understand that these are the people who posed the biggest threat to his rise to power, but I would also assume that they could also have been the most helpful in so many endeavors. I couldn't help but draw parallels to other political upheavals and their need to extinguish the opposition of the educated - the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields immediately jumped to the forefront of my thoughts. Why has this been allowed to happen multiple times in history?

I also was deeply saddened that there seemed to be no intervention by the other allied nations. There was such a strong reaction to the Holocaust and the liberation of concentration camps. Why were these camps not given the same amount of notice and aid? Why do we learn so much about Hitler and his deeds in our U.S. History courses, but the deeds of Stalin go largely ignored? I was inspired to do some research after reading this book and found that Stalin relocated around 3.3 million people to Siberia from 1941-1949. Some sources state that up to 43% of those relocated died due to harsh conditions, diseases, and malnutrition. Furthermore, survivors kept their experiences a secret until the 1990's due to fear of retaliation by the Soviet Police. I don't understand how the suffering of others could have been largely ignored. My research also turned up an article that discusses why Stalin is viewed in a favorable light by many Americans when he killed more people than Hitler. Largely, I suppose this is due to the fact that Stalin and the Soviets were Allies during WWII. However, that doesn't make it right.

I didn't truly intend for this book review to become a rant, but I thought it was important for readers to see how deeply moved I was by this story and Sepetys' writing. This novel is beautiful and haunting. I can only hope that many will read this one and learn about the actions of the past. I will be using this novel with my students in a few weeks. I hope that it will spark as many thoughts for them as it has for me. I also hope that by reading this novel, my students will learn to not take their freedom for granted.

 I applaud Sepetys for shedding light on this event. In spite of the darkness of this text, I loved that in the author interview at the end, Sepetys explained that this is not just a story of oppression, but rather it is one of hope. Lina never seems to lose her sense of hope even in some very bleak circumstances; she is certainly an inspiration to me. I also enjoyed hearing Sepetys speak on her research, family history, and the title of the novel. Sepetys is a gifted writer who was able to transport me to Siberia in the 1940's. 

Between Shades of Gray is a must read for those who enjoy historical fiction, WWII lovers, and those who are seeking to understand more about life under the rule of Joseph Stalin. However, readers should be warned that this book is not an easy one - it is horrific and heart-wrenching - but it is a story that I feel needs to be read.

On the Audio:

Emily Klein did a beautiful job narrating this one. She has a youthful quality to her voice that worked well for Lina. Her cadence was perfect and I stopped thinking of her as a narrator and really began to think of her as the main character. I would highly recommend listening to this one on audio.

Furthermore, as I mentioned in the review, the audio edition comes with an interview with the author. This was almost as powerful as the novel for me. I was incredibly humbled to hear the story of her family's escape from Lithuania. I always was fascinated by her process in creating this story and compiling the research behind it. Hearing the emotion that went into this novel made it even more moving. I think this might be the first author interview that moved me to tears. Most of the interview that is included in the audio version can be seen in the video clip of the author at the conclusion of this post.

One Last Gripe: I want to know more about Lina's life after the camps. We get a snippet of this, but I would have liked more.

My Favorite Thing About This Book: Learning about a side of WWII that I wasn't as familiar with

First Sentence: They took me in my nightgown.

Favorite Character: Lina

Least Favorite Character: The Bald Man

Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they've known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin's orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions. 

Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously - and at great risk - documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father's prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives.


  1. awesome review
    i'm going 2 read this soon
    tnx 4 the reminder of existence of this book

  2. Excellent review. I was also deeply moved by the story,mreealizing my ancestors were from Lithuania. Totally blew me away that this happened and basically no one ever knew about it.

  3. I love this book. It was one of my very favorite reads for last year. It moved me and changed me. I love when a book can hit so deep and leave such a lasting impression. Awesome review.


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