Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Guest Review: Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys

Today we are happy to feature a guest review by Kirsten! Kirsten spends most of her time working in the children's section at her local independent bookstore. (Ok, sometimes she helps with adult booksshe's read a few of those, too.) She has four children--two in college, one in high school, and one in middle school.  She loves trying to play Mozart when she's walks past the piano; taking bubble baths with a good book; all things Wallace Stegner; Matisse's cut-outs; and torturing her youngest son by forcing him to take violin lessons.  Oh, also quirky independent movies and Italian food with her husband.

Published: March 2011

It’s about: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys tells the painful story of fifteen year old Lina as she struggles to survive Stalin’s ethnic cleansing of the Baltic states during WWII.  As she anticipates art school and all things fifteen, Lina, her mother, and her nine year old brother are abruptly forced from their home in Lithuania, in the middle of the night.  Their father is sent to a Soviet prison.  The remaining family members are ruthlessly deported by crowded, filthy, cattle car, deep into Soviet Russia--many weeks journey. Lina documents the harrowing experience in her art and writing, risking everything by hiding her artwork in the inner folds of her meager suitcase.  Eventually, they find themselves in northern Siberia, at the edge of the arctic circle, facing an insurmountable winter.  

I thought: Having read many, many World War II novels and historical accounts--trust me, I’ve read a lot--I was surprised to find an historical event that I hadn’t previously encountered.  The Baltic states were essentially wiped off the map during WWII, not to regain their identity until the 1990s.  Stalin deported most of the inhabitants to Siberia to work them to death, unless they died from starvation or exposure first.  The few people that survived the brutal dehumanization and arctic cold, returned to a place that may have geographically been their home but bore no resemblance to their cultural heritage.  They held their family stories close to their hearts but didn’t speak of them until the demise of Soviet rule.
This book moved me.  Although the subject matter could be tough and disturbing for YA readers, it is presented in a sensitive and hopeful manner without being sentimental.  Ruta Sepetys has written a beautiful first novel.

Verdict: Stick it on the Shelf, right in the middle of your World War II collection--everyone has one, right?

Reading Recommendations: This would be a great companion novel to the true account, The Diary of Anne Frank.  A great choice for classroom discussion.  You’ll find an insightful author video and book group discussion ideas at the novel’s website

Warnings: none

Favorite excerpt:  
Thinking back, the signs were there—family photos burned in the fireplace, Mother sewing her best silver and jewelry into the lining of her coat late at night, and Papa not returning from work. My younger brother, Jonas, was asking questions. I asked questions, too, but perhaps I refused to acknowledge the signs. Only later did I realize that Mother and Father intended we escape. We did not escape.
We were taken.
June 14, 1941. I had changed into my nightgown and settled in at my desk to write my cousin Joana a letter. I opened a new ivory writing tablet and a case of pens and pencils, a gift from my aunt for my fifteenth birthday.
The evening breeze floated through the open window over my desk, waltzing the curtain from side to side. I could smell the lily of the valley that Mother and I had planted two years ago. Dear Joana.
It wasn't a knocking. It was an urgent booming that made me jump in my chair. Fists pounded on our front door. No one stirred inside the house. I left my desk and peered out into the hallway. My mother stood flat against the wall facing our framed map of Lithuania, her eyes closed and her face pulled with an anxiety I had never seen. She was praying.”

What I’m reading now: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.  This book has been recommended to me often over the years, but the Blue Bookcase review a few weeks ago pushed me over the edge.  I’m loving it.