A Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades of Gray is a newly released, young adult title that deals with Stalin's "purification" of the Baltic region in the 1950s.  Sepetys uses the narrative of 15-year-old Lina, to uncover the crimes against the people of this region that went largely hidden from the world for nearly 50 years.

When Lina's family is taken from their home one night, they find themselves boarding train cars with other families without an explanation as to where they will end up.  Fretting over her father's life, as she finds that he's been taken to a prison camp many miles away, Lina, her mother, brother and the bonds she forms with those en route to the work camps, which become her home for 10 years, experience a myriad of intense emotions.

Because Stalin's death camps were so much like Hitler's concentration camps, I feel that the narrative closely resembles other war tales from the unfortunate individuals that were condemned to such horrid conditions.  Sepetys acknowledges that she used the tale to exhibit the voices of the individuals who lost their lives and those that lost loved ones during Stalin's Reign of Terror, which went pushed under the radar for many years under the USSR.

Lina, a gifted artist, idolizes Munch, an artist known for portraying the beauty in tragedy, while simultaneously exhibiting what the artist sees deep within an object.  This representation symbolizes Lina's courage to draw what she sees, even at the risk of murder, and to voice the  realities of this existence.  She draws in order to document the pleasures that assuage this lifestyle, and to remind her of the blessings of her previous life.

The novel seems to be able to accurately describe the transformation of a young girl, as Lina begins to piece together the events that led up to her family's extraction.  Her father's political affiliations and the lives he's saved, which ultimately condemn his own, all come sharply into focus, prompting Lina to understand the world that was slowly changing around her on a much deeper level.  Lina speaks as a child coming to grips with suddenly being forced into an early maturity, and notes the changes she witnesses in her young brother. Their mother's devoted love for their father and the pains of separation, the brutality of war and the sexual crimes committed against women are all explored in a manner that, thankfully, lacks the theatrics of a Hollywood feature, allowing the reality of such conditions to be identified and discussed in a manner that prompts a better understanding of these events.

I really enjoyed this read, despite the ever saddening content.  I felt that the simplicity of the author's language and the raw exposure of the conditions of living in such conflict is a very straightforward way to introduce readers, young and old, to the subject.


  1. I don't know much about Stalin's "purification" of the Baltic region and since I hate stuffy non-fiction history, this sounds like a good place to start.

  2. I've been walking past this book almost every day at work and have picked it up a few times to look at, but haven't brought it home yet. After reading your review I'll definitely have to get it!

  3. I know I'll enjoy this one, but just not now:) Thanks for reviewing it.

  4. Brenna,

    I've read Stalin biographies but wasn't aware of the conditions of the camps or gulags that he developed. Between Stalin and Hitler, the devastation was unbelievable and people weren't certain which was the lesser of two evils. It's a quick read, which I think was perfect considering the character's personality.

    Definitely a pick for the TBR list if you're a lover of historical fiction.

  5. This is my favorite kind of YA fiction...adding this one to the TBR :)

  6. I've heard really great things about this one. I don't read much YA anymore, but this one sounds like it might be worth veering from the norm for.


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