Book review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

As Hitler’s Holocaust swept across Europe, another architect of death was drawing up plans to annihilate millions of innocents.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who killed more than twenty two million people during his reign of terror, wiped out a third of the population of the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia while the world battled the Nazi machine.

The plight of these forgotten victims gets a long overdue airing in Lithuanian author Ruta Sepetys’ heartbreaking and harrowing novel based on the experiences of her own family and survivors of Stalin’s deportations to the Siberian gulags.

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Written as a book for teenagers, Between Shades of Gray holds a powerful message for adults as well as young people ... we should never forget the horrors perpetrated by the Soviet ‘empire.’

Their countries ravaged, their churches destroyed and their libraries burned, the Baltic states simply disappeared from maps of the world until 1990.

Doctors, lawyers, teachers, military servicemen, writers, businessmen, musicians, artists and even librarians were considered anti-Soviet and included on a Kremlin list for wholesale extermination.

Sepetys’ novel centres on the story of one Lithuanian family whose world is torn apart in 1941 when Soviet officers barge into their home and take them on a journey into hell.

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We witness the barbaric events through the eyes of 15-year-old Lina Vilkas whose father, provost of the local university, has been rounded up by the secret police as an enemy of the state.

Separated from her father and herded onto a truck with her mother and 10-year-old brother Jonas, talented artist Lina barely has time to heap a few clothes and her precious sketchbook into a suitcase.

Along the way, they pick up other detainees – a woman, still in her bloodied hospital gown, clutching a baby born just minutes ago and a stamp collector whose only crime is to correspond with foreign philatelists.

They are transported to a countryside railway depot and transferred to cattle trucks, 46 people packed into a ‘rolling coffin’ with no privacy and little breathing space.

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‘I pictured a rug being lifted and a huge Soviet broom sweeping us under it,’ writes Lina.

The faces around her speak to their future ... courage, anger, fear, confusion and hopelessness. Which of these will be the hallmark of Lina’

s destiny?

The nightmare train journey across the Arctic Circle takes them to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia where they must dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruellest of conditions.

Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously documenting events by drawing, but it is only through incredible strength, love, and hope that she ultimately survives...

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Written in the style of The Diary of Anne Frank, Between Shades of Gray is a haunting and emotionally charged experience for readers, and a highly personal odyssey for the author.


(Penguin, paperback, £6.99)

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