12 June 2012

Review 46: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

"One night fifteen-year-old Lina, her mother and young brother, are hauled from their home by Soviet guards, thrown into cattle carts and sent away. They are being deported to Siberia. An unimaginable and harrowing journey has begun. Lina doesn't know if she'll ever see her father or her friends again. But she refuses to give up hope. Lina hopes for her family. For her country. For her future. For love - first love, with the boy she barely knows but knows she does not want to lose... Will hope keep Lina alive? Set in 1941, Between Shades of Gray is an extraordinary and haunting story based on first-hand family accounts and memories from survivors."

Whilst I was very impressed  by this, I did feel that its strength lay in the importance of the story being told rather than Sepetys' skill as a writer. Whilst she is obviously a very capable writer, her words themselves didn't uplift and inspire me with the way she captured her story. The story itself though is a traumatic one with moments of hope and happiness few and far between and plenty of moments of heartbreak and tragedy. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see this win, and apparently its been very popular at lots of school but for me, and for many of my students, Sepetys isn't at the top of the pile

First Line: "They took me in my nightgown."

Why I read it: It is the last of the eight books on the current Carnegie shortlist.

Who I would recommend it to: If you appreciated The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and are prepared for harrowing and upsetting details of horrendous things that really happened.
Lina is fifteen where Soviet guards force her, with her mother and younger brother, onto cattle carts bound for Siberia. Her father is taken separately from the university he works out. They never really find out why they are taken. They endure a horrific journey only to be forced to work in horrendous conditions on a beet farm in Siberia. Along the way Lina and her family are forced to spend time with the other people who were taken alongside them, those who are bitter and scared and those who are brave such as Andrius, for whom Lina has the first feelings of romantic love for. This is the story of Lina and her family as they attempt the horrific situation they are thrust into and try to hold on to their lives and their humanity.

One thing most definitely in its favour is the fact that it brings to light an ordeal that I don't think is widely known about. To my shame, I didn't know that so many Lithuanians were deported by the Soviets during the way and the things they had to endure in the labour camps. It definitely made me go and find out more about what happened in Eastern Europe and the involvement of Stalin. Sepetys used primary sources and interviews with survivors to create this, so whilst Lina and her family are fictional, the situations and events are real which makes it all the more horrifying to read.

The book is undeniably harrowing at times, with awful things happening to characters. There were moments that made me cry, but many more moments that just made me angry. Whilst the capacity of the human spirit for kindness and bravery is celebrated in Lina and her family and Andrius, the capacity for cruelty and sadism is also revealed here in the heartless soldiers that watch over them. I was torn between wanting of know what would happen to the family and not wanting to go back into that world of horrors and cruelty. Lina is a compelling heroine, her determination to write down what happens to her and to draw her captors and fellow captives keeps her sane amidst the disease and depression. Lina's mother is an incredible woman though and her grace in such an horrible situation is awe-inspiring.

I also really feel for Sepetys as she has said that she has had a lot of misunderstandings with Fifty Shades of Grey, which can't be a good novel to get mixed up with. Literary, serious children's fiction and Twilight fan fiction light porn. Indeed when I went to a local library to borrow this as my students had all my library copies, the librarian asked me if I meant Fifty Shades of Grey when I asked for this. Oh dear.

So whilst this is an important story to be told I'm not sure that I've convinced that Sepetys' writing is quite worthy of pushing this above novels such as A Monster Calls or My Name is Mina which are transcendent and written so beautifully as to give you goosebumps and soaring moments, regardless of the nature of the subject being sad. Sepetys is a competent writer but her language didn't draw me in and I didn't enjoy revelling in her words as I did with Hartnett, Ness and Almond. I would not be surprised to see this win but for me it is a worthy book but that does not quite reach the heights that some of the shortlist do.


  1. This is one of my favorite books ever. It slayed me for sure. It's one of those books that has never quite left me no matter now many books are in between when I read it years ago. Soooo glad you loved this one too!

  2. I don't have a favourite book, I've never made myself choose, but it could well be this one. I read it when i was just eleven, and i truly believe it changed my outlook on many, many things. It is unfortunate that such a beautifully constructed novel should so frequently be mistaken for a soft porn book, but whenever mention this book i am always asked "Don't you mean fifty?" I love this book so much, regardless of its unfortunate title. It's nice to see some more reviews for what i think is an under appreciated book.