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It’s Not Easy Facing Up When Your Whole World Is Gray

Meghan reviews Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, a profound story of one family's hardships in a Siberian work camp.

It’s Not Easy Facing Up When Your Whole World Is Gray

BOOK REPORT for Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Cover Story: Best In Class
BFF Charm: Yay
Swoonworthy Scale: 6
Talky Talk: Deceptively Simple
Bonus Factors: Lithuania, History, Art
Relationship Status: I'd Give Up My Bread Ration For This Book

Cover Story: Best In Class

Isn't this the classiest, subtlest cover you've seen in a while? I love it. It's matte instead of glossy, and it's textured like watercolor paper. The barbed wire and seedling are a dead giveaway that this is some kind of WWII hope-in-a-concentration-camp story, but it's not obnoxious. I love this cover!

The Deal:

Lina is 15 when the Soviet secret police take her, her little brother Jonas and her mother away in the middle of the night, board them on a train with hundreds of thousands of other Lithuanians and ship them to a work camp in Siberia. The brutal journey takes six weeks, and not everyone survives the starvation, beatings and cold. And Siberia's even worse. But before you think it's just a story about dead babies and dysentery and being driven insane and people digging their own graves, you should know it's also a story about survivors and surviving and the people who gave help and hope, despite the high price.

BFF Charm: Yay

Lina's mother is charming and beautiful and hopeful and works tirelessly to make sure her children and the rest of the prisoners maintain their humanity, and her brother is so innocent i want to pack him up in my pocket and carry him around like a mouse, safe and warm and feed him sweets. Lina's the tough, rebellious one who has trouble keeping her mouth shut, especially when it's for her own good, and I love her for it. She'd be a hard one to win over, and it'd be super important to keep her trust because the girl has been through hell, but she's an amazing person and deserves a little happiness.

Swoonworthy Scale: 6

Lina meets Andrius in the cattle car on the train. He and Jonas bond over their missing fathers and smoking to keep from feeling hungry, but despite his attempts, Lina's too prickly to let him close. The few times they share a tender moment are made more poignant by their circumstances, showing up bright against the cold and dark and gray and dirt of the train or Siberia, and Andrius's loyalty bumps the swoon up to a 7, despite a distinct lack of kissage and sexytimes. It's his tenderness and their innocence that makes their love so sweet, especially in a place where sex is used only as a means of control, through rape and prostitution.

Talky Talk: Deceptively Simple

My grandmother had a version of Pilgrim's Progress rewritten in words of one syllable. It wasn't entirely in one syllable words -- the Slough of Despond wasn't the Slough of Sad -- but the allegorical story was simplified from Bunyan's original to better indoctrinate appeal to young readers without changing any of the content. Sepetys' prose is equally simple on the surface, with short, uncomplex sentences appropriate for a fifth grade reader, and lets the pure horror of the action speak for itself.

Komorov marched over to Mother. He grabbed her by the arm and spit something that resembled an oyster onto her face. Then he left.

Mother quickly wiped off the slime, as if it didn't bother her at all. It bothered me. I wanted to roll the hate up into my mouth and spit it back into his face.

Bonus Factor: Lithuania

My main experience with Lithuania was being grateful the three tiny Baltic Republics were in alphabetical order (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) when we had to relearn the map of Eastern Europe in sixth grade. Oh, USSR, you made geography so much easier! But the world so much shittier! Anyway, the story made me curious about learning more about Lithuania -- not just Stalin's pogroms, but about the folklore and art.

Bonus Factor: History

Again, we didn't learn anything about all the former Soviet Republics in school. Even in college, I studied Poland, Hungary and the former Yugoslavia, but not Lithuania. And most WWII horrorshows are focused on Hitler and the Nazis, so it's good to see the story of Stalin's purges being told. Sepetys took most of Lina's experiences from interviews with survivors, so every gutwrenching moment really happened, y'all. Watch this -- it's long, and we usually aren't big on book trailers, but watch it. Just not in public.

Bonus Factor: Art

Lina's a gifted artist, and uses her talents as a code to try to contact her father, who's being held somewhere else, as well as help deal with her experiences. Reading about the way she sees the people around her made the story more vivid, like when she has to struggle not to portray the commander of the NKVD (secret police) in her camp as headless, with writhing snakes coming out of his neck.

Casting Call:

Ingeborga Dapkunaite as Lina's Mother

I really wanted to cast Lithuanian actors for this book, but I had a difficult time. The only one I could find was Ingeborga Dapkunaite, who'd be perfect for Lina's mother.

Evanna Lynch as Lina

Thomas Sangster as Jonas

I'm falling back on these two for Lina and Jonas, and trust their skills to portray the siblings with sensitivity. If you can think of anyone for Andrius, let me know! (I pictured him as a young Costas Mandylor.)

Relationship Status: I'd Give Up My Bread Ration For This Book

I can't really express how this book affected me, except to say the night I finished it, I kept my husband awake for an hour, talking about how much we take for granted -- our house, food, clothes, a soft bed, not being taken away in the middle of the night by the precursors to the KGB and shipped to Siberia. I still can't believe the things that really happened, to REAL PEOPLE. And you know what? This stuff still happens. So even though we only get 300 grams of bread a day, and that's all we get to eat unless we can smuggle beets in our underwear or steal grain from sacks, I'd give my bread ration to this book. It's amazing, and the story it has to tell deserves to be heard and it needs to survive more than I do. This book and I have been through hell together, and I'd do anything to make sure it gets out of this camp alive.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received my review copy from Penguin. I received neither money nor cocktails for writing this review (dammit!). Between Shades of Gray will be released March 22.

Meghan Miller's photo About the Author: Meghan is an erstwhile librarian in exile from Texas and writer for Forever Young Adult. She loves books, cooking and homey things like knitting and vintage cocktails. Although she’s around books all the time, she doesn’t get to read as much as she’d like.