I read Ruta Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea earlier this year and enjoyed it immensely, and was looking forward to picking up her first novel, Between Shades of Gray. This book, a YA historical fiction tale, was the winner of July’s Choose My Next Read vote, so thank you to everyone who participated and stay tuned for August’s vote later this week!
About the book: Lina is at home in Lithuania with her mother and small brother when the family is forcibly deported by Soviets. Lina’s father is already missing, so when the rest of the family arrives at the train station amidst a crowd of deportees, she goes looking for him. The men are not going to the same place as the women and children and infirm, so Lina must use her artistic drawings and trust the passing hands of strangers to convey messages to her absent father concerning the family’s whereabouts. Conditions in the train car are awful, but they’re nothing compared to the inhumane treatment Lina and her family find in the labor camps. Eventually they land in Siberia, where they must build their own winter-proof huts out of scraps while the Soviet officers enjoy warmth and fresh food from their bakery. Lina and her family fight for survival for themselves and the other members of their group, knowing that their chances are better if they can only make it through the first sunless Siberian winter.
“Was it harder to die, or harder to be the one who survived? I was sixteen…but I knew. It was the one thing I never questioned. I wanted to live.”
About the layout: Between Shades of Gray is told in the first person, from Lina’s perspective. The chapters are short and easily readable, despite occasionally gruesome subject matter. There are also sections within the chapters that reflect Lina’s memories prior to her deportation.
The memories felt unnecessary to me. They don’t further the plot, and the characterization they show could be gained from Lina’s present story line, except maybe in the case of Lina’s father’s past “crimes.” Yet even those I felt could be described from the present, and nothing would be lost. Some may argue that it’s touching to compare Lina’s life before and after the war, but it felt so… expected. Of course Lina had a beautiful, innocent life with innocent troubles before the war. She was a young girl with hopes and dreams–and I would have felt the same about her past without seeing those memories. I kept looking for something in this book to surprise me, but the memories were not that something.
“It couldn’t end like this. It couldn’t. What was life asking of me? How could I respond when I didn’t know the question?”
Between Shades of Gray is certainly emotional, but the emotion also feels obvious. Of course there were horrors against humanity in WWII. Of course people experienced unspeakable atrocities, and of course when we’re given a chance to look at their lives individually it’s all tragic. That aspect of the book did not surprise me at all, either. I was expecting sad deaths and unfair living conditions, so their appearance was not shocking, and I was still looking for something surprising to drive the story beyond the expected.
This is a story in which things happen to the characters more often than the characters are in control of their own actions. Lina does what she’s told. She doesn’t like it, but she wants to survive. Occasionally she draws to help create a record and to spread news to her father of her whereabouts, but those moments are quick and sparse and don’t give the story much forward motion. Sometimes Lina defies orders by stealing or sneaking away from where she’s supposed to be, but again, they’re small moments that contribute to small episodes of action and add little to the main narrative. Perhaps one could argue that the main plot thread involves Lina’s family trying to find and reunite with Lina’s father, but other than asking for news from strangers and sending out clues of their lives through more strangers, there’s nothing there to go on. Thus, the book lacks plot, motivation, and character action, and without those things there’s less tension except in small, episodic increments.
“I clung to my rusted dreams during the times of silence. It was at gunpoint that I fell into every hope and allowed myself to wish from the deepest part of my heart. Komorov thought he was torturing us. But we were escaping into a stillness within ourselves. We found strength there.”
One thing Sepetys does particularly well is to humanize the “bad guys.” The bald man in Lina’s group who is obsessed with death annoys and frightens everyone, but Sepetys will warm hearts to him in the end. The German soldier who grates on Lina’s nerves also has a story that blurs the line between villain and victim. The rude woman Lina’s family lives with at their first labor camp has a surprise in store when it comes time to say goodbye. The good guys hide their sacrifices and the bad guys are better than meets the eye. Lina’s mother is especially interesting. It would’ve been interesting to see some of this book through her perspective, behind the brave face she puts on for her children. Somehow she knows who to be kind to, how to stretch her resources, and how to put the difficulties of a situation aside.
This is a suitable book for young YA readers, as the horrors of war are related as morals rather than gory scenes.
“There were only two possible outcomes in Siberia. Success meant survival. Failure meant death. I wanted life. I wanted to survive.”
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Even though I gave them the same rating, I think if it came to a choice I would say I preferred Salt to the Sea over this novel. There are some similarities, but the switching between character perspectives in Salt to the Sea and the climax of that story involving the naval disaster gave that book more momentum. I did feel that Between Shades of Gray was an emotional and worthwhile read, and I know Sepetys has a lesser-known novel that I may be interested in reading in the future, but overall I think I’m learning that YA historical fiction is not my favorite thing. It’s a little too transparent for my taste.
- Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea is a great follow-up. I would recommend reading Salt to the Sea second, because there are some related characters with a small continuing plot thread that would be easier to pick up in publication order. This novel also emphasizes Sepetys’ skill at proving no one is who they seem; every character has a private story that makes them so much more than their role in WWII.
- Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is another obvious but worthwhile suggestion for Sepetys fans. The Book Thief is also YA historical fiction focused on WWII, but takes place in Germany, focusing on a poor family who must pretend to believe what they don’t in order to survive Hitler’s changes in the country.
What’s next: I’m currently rereading George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, and I will definitely have a review up for that within the month, but it is kind of long and a reread so I may pick up another undetermined book from my July TBR to read at the same time, in which case there would be another review before that one.
The Literary Elephant