“Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.”
– Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys
Ruta Sepetys’ debut novel Between Shades of Gray is set in Lithuania at a time when the Soviet secret police (NKVD) ambushes 15-year-old Lina’s family in the middle of the night. They are only given twenty minutes to pack their belongings before they are thrown into a train (labeled “thieves and prostitutes”) headed to Siberia. Their cattle cart is made up of mostly women and their children, and a couple of elderly, who we later on learn are educated people (a stamp collector, a librarian, a teacher, a university provost’s wife) despite being tagged “criminals” by the Soviet.
The journey to Siberia proves troublesome for Lina and the gang, who aren’t used to such disagreeable conditions: sleeping in a cart that reeked of urine and other ghastly odors, being cramped in a small area where diseases like scurvy and dysentery abound, and above all, having to be away from their fathers who are kept in a separate cart with other Lithuanian men.
Lina is among the many who witness all sorts of cruelty — soldiers throwing lifeless bodies out of the train without any hint of remorse, leaving bodies out in the cold for animals to feast on, and punishing the weak and restless for the hell of it. She decides to document everything she sees through words and sketches.
I don’t want to spoil any more of what transpires throughout the book, because each chapter is as mind-blowing as the next. The book is divided into 85 short chapters, some of which contain recounts of Lina’s home life leading to the day she was taken by the NKVD in her nightgown.
I am convinced that this is a stellar first effort, with Sepetys’ vivid prose demanding that readers empathize with those kept captive by the NKVD. Such a powerful tale drawn from actual survivors’ heartbreaking experiences, and infused with fragments of fiction (e.g. a love story) that are a perfect fit to the already poignant and inspiring narrative. (Think Jack and Rose in Titanic.)
I strongly recommend this book; it’s one of the best I’ve read so far. It reminds me so much of Elie Wiesel’s Night, one of my favorites.
Oh and please read until the Author’s Note, as it was equally outstanding. Sepetys wrote: “These three tiny nations have taught us that love is the most powerful army. Whether love of friend, love of country, love of God, or even love of enemy–love reveals to us the truly miraculous nature of the human spirit.”
Book cover was grabbed from the Internet.