Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Few books move me to tears. This one left my face a watercolor of sadness and my lungs void of air. No exaggeration.

I can’t review this book. Depictions of human anguish cannot be criticized.

Sepetys writes without garnish but that is the beauty of Between Shades of Gray. The story is raw and real. Nothing is hidden. And that is key to the message of this story. You must live this book to fully feel the weight of it.

The story of Lina, her mother, her brother Jonas, Andrius, and all those who were dragged from their homes by Stalin and carried across the frozen tundra of Siberia, is not one that has been made public.

The secrets of Stalin’s holocaust of the Lithuanian, Latvian, and Finnish people was well hidden by the Soviet Union. It has only been in recent years that the deepest horrors of Stalin’s regime have come to light.

I wept for Lina as I read their journey from their lovely home in Lithuania, to Siberia, to the desolation that is the Laptev Sea above the Arctic Circle.

Stories like these must be told.

I loved how this book did not shy away from the reality of its difficult subject matter. Lina hid not any detail of what her eyes witnessed, her despair, or hope. She struggled with hate, and yet Sepetys reminded us that love, love is what pulls us through the worst conditions a human can possibly endure.

“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.” – Ruta Sepetys in the afterword of Between Shades of Gray. 

Lina asked questions, about love and hate, about death and life. She understood the significance of what Stalin was doing to her people and knew that even though the consequences could result in death, that she had to preserve the decade of memories of atrocity. A decade of starvation, of below zero temperatures with threadbare clothing, of violence, of sickness, of family, of blossoming love, of unexpected kindness, of hope.

She drew and wrote about all that she saw. She allowed herself to fall in love. She did not keep quiet when injustice rose.

Lina struggled with the balance of a rightful anger, and choking hatred.

And I admire Sepetys for portraying her that way. Forgiveness and love, yes, are beautiful and good and right, but they usually aren’t what we naturally feel when wronged. I could see myself in her. Her fight with the balance of pride and knowledge versus compassion, is a struggle I face often.

Sepetys did not allow Lina’s hate to take over her. I won’t spoil the book, but love pervades every page.

Because between the shades of gray despondency that Lina and those with her live in, there is hope. There is love. Sepetys’s use of the Psalms to portray the emotions of the Lithuanians still evokes tears.

“For I eat ashes like bread and mingle my tears with my drink, because of your indignation and anger; for you have taken me up and thrown me down. My days are like and evening shadow; I wither away like grass. But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations. You will rise and have pity on Zion; it is the time to favor her; the appointed time has come.” – Psalm 102:9-13

“We’d been trying to touch the sky from the bottom of the ocean. I realized that if we boosted one another, maybe we’d get a little closer.” – Between Shades of Gray

This book. I cannot stress how important it is to read about these forgotten events.

History is important.

Do. Not. Forget the horrors of the past. They remind us to hope, they remind us to look to God even in the most desperate of times, they remind of to be compassionate, they remind us of the inexpressible sorrow that exists in this world, they remind of heinous evils, they tell us to work against such horrors.

What Stalin did to the people of Eastern Europe has been kept a secret for years and years. My heart breaks for those who were forced to live in silence after enduring so much. I can’t even begin to understand what they went through. My eyes are tearing up as I write.

But books like these, these books stir our hearts and expose sorrow and evil. They give us hope and point us to the glorious end to sin that is coming with the return of Jesus.

With Jesus, there is hope, there is love.

Read, my friends. Don’t read what makes you comfortable. Read what speaks truth. Read what changes you.

Between Shades of Gray

(Photos in collage from Pinterest.)

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