Like Moby Dick’s “Call me Ishmael,” a book’s opening line sets more than just the tone of the story. It humanizes a character, as it is the first introduction of the reader into a new world. And Sepetys demonstrates the striking quality of a few words in the first line of Between Shades of Gray. She narrates the fragile account of a persecuted 15-year-old Lithuanian girl and the story of an unmendable world falling apart.
Lina Vilkas was preparing to attend art school. In an already dark world, Lina looked up to the iconic Edvard Munch for inspiration in her sketches. She, alongside her mother and younger brother, was taken by the Soviet secret police and is introduced to the never-ending gruesome reality of a world ruled by the Stalinist administration. As Lina, her mother, and her brother struggle to survive in the cold labor camp, the syntax of writing seemingly wavers as well. Slowly, pictures of their previous lives in Lithuania appear across the pages, in italicized flashbacks.
Sepetys’ writing intertwines the feeling of a coming-of-age story, though constantly in juxtaposition to perpetual starvation, sickness, and loss. Well deserving of recognition as a #1 New York Times Bestselling author, Sepetys artistically crafts each anecdote, putting indescribable meaning to trivial occurrences, like the gaze from a loved one. It was reminiscent of the timeless Don McLean song, “Vincent” (“Starry Starry Night”). Between Sepetys’ use of language and Lina’s connection to Edward Munch, I found myself constantly paralleling the song to the story. As Vincent Van Gogh painted from his cell in a mental hospital in his final days, he tried to see the beauty in the bitter world. Similarly, I feel as though Lina would also find solace in this song, as the only way she can express herself is through her sketches in the snow, on the tree bark, or on the final pages in her notebook.
Ruta Sepetys composes a devastatingly realistic through the pages of “Between Shades of Gray.” I highly recommend the read, and I look forward to exploring more of her works, especially in the era of the Second World War.