Review: Between the Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

“A beautifully painted portrait of one of histories greatest least known tragedies.”

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Title:Between the Shades of Gray
Author:Sepetys, Ruta

From Goodreads: 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. Between Shades of Gray is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart.

It has taken me a few days to come to terms with how to review this book. I want you to know how important it is, and I want you to know how powerful the book itself is and I am coming up short for a way to tell you that without seeming to only build hype or generally being too enthusiastic.

I tried so hard to remember if this part of Stalin’s reign was detailed to me in a class at school and I do not believe it was covered in any class. This being new information to me aided in me becoming addicted to this novel. I was literally awake until three am because I could not put the book down until I came to the conclusion of the story.

Sepetys pains a grim picture of life in Lithuania during the early parts of Russian occupation. She doesn’t use sensationalism to guide the reader into the gloomy setting that populates the book almost a character unto itself.

We begin in Lithuania at a University Professor’s house. His family is arrested and put in a military vehicle to be transported to a train station where you follow the families story as told by Lina in an Anne Frank diary style and in the first person.

Lina’s artistry becomes a great focus for the reader, the explanations of what she is drawing helps paint the gray scenery and shows us how she is feeling each moment. At times the artistry itself leads the reader into a flashback scenario where we are able to see just how carefree Lina’s life was before her arrest.

Lina and her family endure hardships that I can’t even fathom to imagine. I was entranced, horrified, and in tears through most of my five or so hours reading this book. Even as the reader it is hard to maintain any hope for the situation to improve.

Sepetys is an amazing writer who uses a simplistic writing style that suits the grim situation fantastically. I am in awe of her use of language to bring emotion to my reading when I generally do not emote for the sake of emoting. This book made me feel sad, hopeless, worried, horrified and so much more.

There are so many interesting facts well placed throughout the chapters. I also was unaware that Lithuania, Estonia and other countries just were not on the map at all from the time of Stalin’s occupation until 1991.

This is a book that you absolutely must read.

This book was picked up at ALA for review purposes.

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12 Responses so far

  1. Gravatar

    Wow, sounds really powerful! Great review!!

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    Man, this book sounds rough. But in a good way! It’s really nice to see Stalin’s reign of terror be a theme in a YA book–we often forget that he was just as horrible as Hitler, though not as obvious.

    Very thoughtful review, Pam! This one’s definitely on my list.

  3. Gravatar

    I wrote my review this morning too. I stayed up all night reading it because like you I just couldn’t stop. I absolutely agree this is a 5 star book.

  4. Gravatar

    I’m part Lithuanian on my mom’s side, so I instantly feel like I should read this. Most people haven’t even heard of the country. Glad you liked it!

  5. Gravatar

    It took me a little while to review this one too. It was so powerful. Such a good read.

  6. Gravatar


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  7. Gravatar

    Since I’m of Lithuanian descent this book meant a lot to me. I adored it and cried through a lot of it.

  8. Gravatar

    Wow, this sounds beautiful and difficult and definitely a must read. I am intrigued. Thank you for the insightful review!

  9. Gravatar

    The subject of this book and the laudatory reviews it has received have convinced me to read it. Have any of you read “The Endless Steppe” by Esther Hautzig, published in 1969? The theme is the same: a Lithuanian family snatched from their home and torn apart by the Communist regime at the start of WWII. Only, Esther’s story, written in the first person, is non fiction. It, too, is a truly great book for YA and others, and I recommend it highly.

  10. Gravatar

    Marilyn I haven’t read it but thank you for bringing it to my attention!

  11. Gravatar

    [...] the exact circumstances of why she sent me the book, but I think it’s after she read it and reviewed it, she was singing its praises on Twitter and I told her I hadn’t heard of it, so she said [...]

  12. Gravatar

    I am trying to get in touch with Marilyn Hautzik who is my second cousin…My grandmother Jennie was the younger sister of her grandmother Sarah.

    I am Selma Kleinfeld’s daughter.

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