FIRST SENTENCE: They took me in my nightgown.
This book could be the next "Diary of Anne Frank", a book and play that I read and saw when I was a pre-teen, and then again later in life. These are the sorts of events that we SHOULD learn about in school, in order to keep us from repeating the same types of crimes against humanity. I am extremely grateful to Ms. Septys for writing this story and bringing to light a dark period of time for the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia), that not many know about.
It is 1941, and Russia is marching across the land, annexing new countries by force and instituting Stalin's philosophies. In a country where being an intellectual is now a crime, many academics, and those suspected of original thinking, are rounded up, placed in rail cars, and "repatriated", either sold as slaves or put to work on "collective farms", many in the cold of Siberia, where the work is hard, rations are scarce, disease rages, firewood has to be stolen, and people die and are killed by the NKVD (Russian secret police) without repercussion.
The novel takes you on a journey with Lina Vilkas, a talented 15-year-old artist, whose father Kostas is a university provost. Her loving family is rounded out by her mother Elena, elegant and beautiful, and her 10-year-old brother Jonas, a sweet-natured, fun-loving boy.
Their nightmare begins on a night when Kostas didn't return home, and the NKVD pounds on the door, giving them 20 minutes to pack and leave. Their mother, having anticipated this eventuality, has sewn valuables into the lining of her coat, and spends some of the prep time breaking her other valued possessions to keep them out of Soviet hands.
The truck they are loaded into waits for a while in front of a hospital. A mother is giving birth, and she and her newborn are taken directly afterward and placed in the truck with the 15 already there. As groups are loaded into boxcars labeled "thieves and prostitutes", the long, cold, and deadly journey begins, spanning years with no relief and ever-increasing hardship.
Lina's story is an amalgamation of many of the stories of the survivors of this period of time. Even after 10-15 years of forced labor, death, loss of family and possessions, when the survivors eventually returned to their homeland, they were forbidden to speak of what had happened to them.
Ms. Sepetys brings their stories to vivid life, and even as your heart aches, there is hope engendered on these pages. A hope that these stories will put an end to oppression and brutality ... and a hope that we never forget the consequences of such acts.
An emotionally powerful, beautifully-wrought novel, Between Shades of Gray should be on everyone's reading list.
QUOTES (from an ARC; may be different in final copy):
The priest looked up, flung oil, and made the sign of the cross as our train rolled away.
He was issuing last rites.
I heard a scream and saw the limp body of a child heaved out into the mud. A woman tried to jump out after the corpse. She was smashed in the face by the butt of a rifle. I saw another body thrown out. Death had begun to gather a crop.
The next day, the guards dragged her stiff body out of the train. Her mother jumped down after her, crying. A gunshot fired. A thud hit the dirt. A grieving mother was an annoyance.show more
by Julie Smith