Was it harder to die, or harder to be the one who survived?

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys is a novel of hope and survival in the face of heinous acts committed during WWII. Inspired by her family’s history in Lithuania, Sepetys integrates true accounts and experiences from survivors as she reminds readers of the ethnic cleansing of the Baltic States that took place under Stalin’s regime. Told from the perspective of a resilient 15-year-old, Lina Vilkas, the story begins with the night NKVD officers, a Soviet law enforcement agency, brutally take Lina and her family from their home. The two children have no idea why they are forced out of their home, but the mother ensures them they will be back. Separated from the father, the officers put Lina, her mother and younger brother onto a train bound for Siberia. The children quickly discover there are hundreds of others in their situation.
As Lina finds out where and why the Soviets annexed so many, so do the readers. The passages in the book alternate between the present and to happier times in the past. Through flashbacks, Lina realizes her parents and their friends foresaw the Soviet attack, but no one anticipated the gravity of the damage it would cause. While Sepetys does not delve deeply into political details behind the invasion, she does clearly describe the mistreatment of the Baltic people. The trains transport thousands of people to work in grueling labor camps. The NKVD condemns those who survive the horrendous train journey to manual labor to earn their rations, a piece of bread. Lina, in her happier past, was going to attend an intense summer program for bourgeoning artists. She secretly uses her artistic talents to find calm and solace while documenting  the atrocities. Since there is so much emphasis placed on Lina’s art, it would have been nice to see some illustrations. While Lina, her family and all those at the camp are in the most horrific situation imaginable, everyone tries to keep their spirits up as best as they can by sharing happy stories from their past. In the midst of all this is a small love story. Lina and Andrius’ friendship and gradual understanding of each other turns into an everlasting hope. It is a bleak story and it gets worse as it progresses, but it is definitely worth reading.

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