Published by Penguin UK on April 7, 2011
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One night fifteen-year-old Lina, her mother and young brother are hauled from their home by Soviet guards, thrown into cattle cars and sent away. They are being deported to Siberia. An unimaginable and harrowing journey has begun. Lina doesn't know if she'll ever see her father or her friends again. But she refuses to give up hope. Lina hopes for her family. For her country. For her future. For love - first love, with the boy she barely knows but knows she does not want to lose . . . Will hope keep Lina alive? Set in 1941, Between Shades of Gray is an extraordinary and haunting story based on first-hand family accounts and memories from survivors.
Before this book was published I didn’t know anything about the treatments of Lithuanian’s during World War II, it amazes me that everyone knows about the treatment of the Jews during this period but they were by no means the only people who were mistreated. Having recently read Hotel on The Corner of Bitter and Sweet about the treatment of Chinese people living in the USA I was eager to get another insight into this period from a different perspective.
Knowing that this was about Lithuanian Prisoners of War during World War II, I thought I was prepared for it to be an emotional read. I was wrong, nothing could prepare me for how absolutely heart wrenching this novel is. Within pages of starting this book I was openly crying in public places, I couldn’t help myself and yet I couldn’t tear myself away, I was absolutely transfixed from the start and desperate to know what happened.
We start the novel as Lina, her mother and her brother are being taken from their home, their father has already disappeared days earlier. They are told nothing about where they are going or what to expect, but are taken to a railway station where they are forced to board a train with hundreds of others in appalling conditions. Within the carriage Sepetys introduces us to a number of characters who accompany Lina and her family throughout the novel, she does this with such skill that you grow to care about each of them, know their idiosyncrasies and really do feel the pain of all those involved. As a group they have to fight for their survival but also look out for one another and support each other through what is obviously the worst ordeal of their lives. The conditions on the train are horrific but this is only the start of the story, the trains are a means of transferring the prisoners to work camps where the fight for survival escalates. I actually started to worry about myself at this point in the novel, it was almost as though I had become anaesthetised to what they were going through, I calmed and went a couple of hours without tears. I think part of my calming was the determination, spirit and camaraderie that the prisoners showed. Even when they were suffering and there was little hope to be had, they clung to any glimmer of hope that could be found. The attitude of these people was unbelievably uplifting, in the UK in times of trouble people talk about the spirit of the blitz, although I’m sure it wasn’t a great time for anyone to live through the spirit of the blitz cannot even compare to the courage that is conveyed throughout this novel.
Just when you are thinking that things are as bad as they can get, the prisoners are again moved – to Siberia. For me, the thought of heading to Siberia now when I could take all manner of modern gizmo’s and clothing to keep me warm still isn’t appealing. For a malnourished, mistreated prisoner to be sent there in clothes they’d been wearing for years with no accommodation awaiting them at the other end is beyond comprehension. Yet still, they refuse to be broken and carry themselves with dignity at all times.
If I thought the start of Between Shades of Grey was emotional I was in for a shock at the end, I’m writing this review a week after finishing it and my eyes are welling up as I type, it was absolutely heart breaking.
This was a fabulous book, filled with raw emotion. For a horrific subject matter it was often shocking, but never unbearable to read. Sepetys is very eloquent in her storytelling and I loved the dignity and hope that was present throughout the novel.