Sepetys, Ruta. 2011. BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY. New York: Penguin. ISBN 9780399254123 [Suggested Grade Levels 8-12]
“They took me in my nightgown.” Lina, her mother, and little brother are taken from their Lithuanian home by the secret police in 1941. Accused of being anti-Soviet, the family, with hundreds of other “criminals,” is sent on a horrifying journey to Siberian labor camps. Although living out a nightmare, Lina finds the strength to carry on through her artwork. She secretly illustrates their experience hoping she will somehow be able to leave a trail for Papa to find them.
Based on the experiences of the author’s family, this novel reveals the horrors that took place in the Baltic states during Stalin’s reign of terror, a relatively unknown but immense Soviet genocide. Sepetys brilliantly voices the terrifying experiences while allowing hope, courage, love, and the strength of the human spirit to shine through. Flashbacks relay the family’s previous life, painting a sober picture of what was lost at the hands of evil. Sepetys’s use of art throughout the novel as a means of inspiration and documentation is particularly powerful. A compelling author’s note, map, and timeline round out this unforgettable first novel.
Readers can observe the works of artist Edvard Munch and create illustrations of the characters in his distinctive style. They can plot the captives’ journey on a map and calculate the total miles traveled.
Sepetys says that truth rarely exists in black and white but rather “between shades of gray.” Readers can discuss what this means and which characters personify this idea in the novel.
Other books about the Lithuanian experience:
Hautzig, Esther. THE ENDLESS STEPPE: GROWING UP IN SIBERIA. 9780329574666
Rabinovits, Shoshanah. THANKS TO MY MOTHER. 9780141305967
Whelan, Gloria. THE IMPOSSIBLE JOURNEY. 9781402574061 [audio]
By Jill Bellomy