June 14, 1941, marks the Baltic equivalent to Adolf Hitler’s Holocaust—Josef Stalin’s deportation of Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians and others to Siberian prison and labor camps. This story of exploitation, starvation, terror and death of hundreds of thousands is largely untold. Between Shades of Gray by Lithuanian-American writer Ruta Sepetys is an accessible account of a family’s experience of this atrocity.
The story is told by Lina Vilkas, a 15-year-old girl growing up in Kaunas. The knock on the door during the night of June 14 changes her life. Lina’s mother and younger brother have minutes to pack a few belongings, are transported to a train station, and are herded onto cattle cars for a long journey to Siberia. This is the beginning of their sentence for their crimes against the Soviet Union.
What crimes did this 15-year-old girl and her younger brother commit? What crimes did any of these “criminals” commit? There was no trial. There was no proof. The family name was simply on the “list”—as were so many other Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians and others.
Stalin’s purge on that single night was an effective tool to terrify the citizens of the Soviet Union, especially those in occupied territories. One best behave! Any misstep could result in a penalty, often an official 25-year sentence to be served in a labor camp in Siberia. The reality of this sentence, however, was that it was often a death sentence in disguise.
Lina, the young narrator, shares her hope to be reunited with her father, who was arrested separately that same night. She tells us of the horrors and humiliation that was endured in the cattle cars. People were packed in like sardines in a can. The only relief came after someone’s death because the corpse was thrown out by the railroad tracks. The journey to Trim in Siberia was one of thousands of miles and many months.
Upon arrival, a new hell awaited the deportees: forced labor for a single portion of dry bread. The story of community and survival is horrific and told in graphic detail. Lina’s mother was asked to be a snitch with respect to the community. She refused, but certainly others agreed. There lies the beauty of Stalin’s campaign of terror: always a snitch—somewhere, anywhere.
The story is not new. One can find many books about deportation to Siberia written in the Latvian language, including Sandra Kalniete’s Ar balles kurpēm Sibīrijas sniegos. But the story has rarely been told in English and when it has—such as the translation of Kalniete’s masterful book, With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows—it has seemed somewhat awkward and remote.
The beauty of Between Shades of Gray is that it is written in English for a contemporary audience. It has an immediacy and a quick tempo because the narrator tells her own story. There is no attempt to tell the entire story of Stalin’s prison and labor camps, which would be appropriate for nonfiction.
This book can be shared with anyone. I have sent it to my Latvian-born mother who knows the story well (and who raised me speaking Latvian as a first language). I will also share this book with my nephews in college, whose association with Latvia has been minimal, but who should know this story of their ancestors.
Between Shades of Gray was published in March by Philomel Books, a young reader’s division of Penguin Group. I am somewhat surprised by this because of the book’s graphic nature, even though the heroine is 15. When should children learn the details of man’s inhumanity to other men? When are the gruesome details of the Holocaust taught? They must, however, be shared at some point and this book provides the means to do so.
I learned of the book when mentioned as an “Editor’s Choice” of recent hardcovers in The New York Times. It deserves it. Of 35 reader reviews on Amazon.com, 30 gave the book five stars and five gave it four.
Between Shades of Gray is a deeply felt story that will certainly touch many lives.
Between Shades of Gray
New York: Philomel Books, 2011
On the Web
A promotional website for the book includes a nearly 12-minute video. EN
Learn more about the Michigan-born author of Between Shades of Gray on her website. EN
Where to buy
Purchase Between Shades of Gray from Amazon.com.
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