Book Review: Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys

In the historical fiction novel Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys, 15 year old Lina Vilkas, along with her mother Elena and younger brother Jonas (who is 10 years old) are arrested and abducted by the NKVD (Soviet Secret Police) in 1941 Lithuania. They are stuffed into a tiny train car with many others, but the direct link between them all is unknown. The train car has horrible conditions, and Lina’s father Kostas was taken too, but he and the other men are in a different train. The book narrates the story of Lina, Elena, and Jonas’s journey as prisoners of the NKVD. The entire time, Lina, Elena, and Jonas are trying to find word of where Lina’s father, Kostas, could be.

This book has multiple settings. It begins in Lithuania in 1941, and Lina, Elena, and Jonas are first taken to Siberia and then taken back down to a labor camp in Altai where they are forced to do hard tasks in horrid conditions and minimal food. After that, they are taken on a ship back to Siberia, where they work to build for the NKVD.

The most obvious, main conflict is that Lina, Jonas, Elena, and Kostas have been taken by the NKVD, and so have many others, with no clear connection (in the beginning). This is an external conflict; however, each character also experiences their own internal conflicts. The story is told from Lina’s point of view, and she has many flashbacks of her life in Lithuania. The author very cleverly implements the flashbacks so each time, they get closer and closer to the present until they suddenly fit together like a puzzle and explain what led up to Lina’s family being taken (which I will not spoil!). 

As a 15 year old girl, and a wonderful artist, Lina draws what she sees, especially people, as a means of recording and expressing herself. She is the narrator of the story, and as a teenage girl her descriptions and emotions are very interesting to readers. Lina’s internal conflicts are specific to the mindset of a teenage girl, and it ranges from missing her father to being protective over her younger brother.

I think that the most influential character in the book is Lina’s mother, Elena, who is the rock for her children. Without Elena, Jonas and Lina would lose hope and motivation very quickly, and may even be separated from each other. Elena wonderfully symbolizes the theme of motherly protection, and it’s a delightful theme to see in such a story. The way she handles everything with kindness, but at the same time stays strong and does not tolerate anything unfair against her children is amazing. Her importance is especially seen since the entire mood of the book is a reflection of her. Lina is the narrator, and she often uses her mother’s facial expressions or posture while describing conditions. This shows the influence and love Lina has for her mother.

My favorite character in the book is Elena, since she is very protective, emotionally strong, and kind to those around her. I really loved the way Elena’s disposition shapes the novel, since Elena has such an impact on her daughter, Lina, who is the narrator. 

Jonas is a 10 year old boy, and is shown at the beginning of the novel to be obedient, sincere, and innocent. Young boys are famously known for being playful and mischievous. The horridness that people suffered during the time of the novel is very starkly shown through Jonas, since he is a young boy stripped of his childhood and being captured and forced into the workcamps. His presence makes the conditions of the book much more sad.

There was one event in the novel that may seem small but was very significant. In the train car, one of the people trapped in the same car as Lina was a boy named Andrius. During the train ride he found an oval stone with quartz and other crystals inside. At first, Andrius kept it, but then gifted it to Lina, who gifted it to Jonas, and the stone cycles through characters like this. It is always given as a gift because the person who is giving it wants the other person to feel better. The stone symbolizes luck and lifts the spirits of the captured people as soon as it is found. If the stone had never been found, the characters’ morale would have hurtled at a downward slope. The stone gave short, simple happiness, and throughout the story happiness and hope is what keeps the characters going. 

I would personally give this book a 10/10. This book was very interesting, and I finished it very quickly. It had wonderful characters, character development, and suspense. It incorporated themes of motherly love, the importance of family, and youthfulness. I usually do not like historical fiction books, but this book was very amazing and informative. The best part was that it did not seem distant and simply informative; the characters seemed so relatable in age and their emotions were easy to empathize with, making the book very powerful. People who enjoy mystery, suspense, the theme of family, and history would love this book. I think that this book is especially powerful, and a person who just likes one of the previously mentioned qualities would definitely enjoy this book.

-Ayati M.

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded for free from Overdrive.

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