Thursday 7 April 2011

Book review : Between Shades of Gray - Ruta Sepetys

Today sees the release of Between Shades of Gray, a haunting story that I have just finished reading that left me feeling bewildered and almost slightly guilty that I was totally unaware of the horrors it describes.

As a child, like most people, I learnt about World War II at school, including a very diluted version of the Nazi genocide. I'm sure everybody has at least heard of and probably read The Secret Diary of Anne Frank and there have been countless documentaries on the horrors of the Holocaust. Even my 9-year-old daughter is aware of the atrocities that Jewish people suffered at the hands of Hitler.

But Between Shades of Gray tells us the tragically similar tale of the Baltic nations, who suffered atrocities at the hands of Stalin. In 1941, the nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia totally disappeared from maps and did not reappear until 1990, during which time Stalin enforced ethnic cleansing and deportations of entire populations.

The comparison is unavoidable - Lina, a 15-year-old Lithuanian girl, rounded up by Stalin's secret police and deported with her family to Siberia, is like a Lithuanian version of Anne Frank. The author Ruta Sepetys manages to portray the horrors of daily life in a very simplistic, childlike way which only serves to make it all seem even more unbearable.

There is no melodramatic prose. In just a few matter-of-fact sentences, Lina tells us, for example, how the cart taking them to the deportation trains waited at a hospital for a mother to finish giving birth before both mother, still in her blood-stained nightie, and babe were unceremoniously thrown into the cart as criminals and deported. Or how a grieving mother, whose daughter had just died, was shot in the head as a noisy inconvenience to be eliminated. The simplicity of the narration makes it all seem even more brutal - these things are related as if they are a daily occurence, nothing out of the ordinary, which just serves to show the horror of the bigger picture.

Despite the shocking brutality of certain scenes, the book is ultimately a story of hope, survival and human strength and is accessible for children who have already learned about the Holocaust. As an adult, I was shocked to discover that whole populations were deported and massacred and that I knew nothing about it.

In an author's note at the end of the book, Ruta Sepetys explains that the deportees who managed to survive were treated like criminals on their return and that speaking about their experience was punished with immediate imprisonment or deportation back to Siberia. This genocide - Stalin is estimated to have killed more than twenty million people during his reign of terror - was therefore brushed under the carpet, becoming a collective deep dark secret that nobody mentioned. Ruta explains that to this day, many Russians deny they ever deported a single person.

What makes this book even more chilling is that it is based on personal experience. On a trip visiting relatives in Lithuania a few years ago, Ruta discovered that some of her extended family members had been deported and she used first-hand family accounts and survivors' stories in her book.

As well as being an enjoyable read, this is one book that your really SHOULD read, to learn more about this horrific episode of world history that, in my experience at least, remains largely unknown.

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £6.99

Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Puffin (7 April 2011)
ISBN-10: 9780141335889
ISBN-13: 978-0141335889
ASIN: 0141335882

Other reviews you may be interested in :


  1. I just read another book review you posted but this book really does sound right up my street and perfect for my teenage daughter to try too xx


  2. Just be warned, it's 12+ and some of the scenes could be a bit upsetting, especially as it's based on real life

  3. Another mother- this time a 16 year old...
    Might take a look next time we are in a book shop

  4. My daughter is an avid fan of The Diary of Anne Frank. I think she would love this book as she is very into historical fiction. Thanks for reviewing.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...