Monday, November 26, 2012

Book Review: Between Shades of Gray

Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys.  YA Historical Fiction.  Audio book, read by Emily Klein.

First things first: this has NOTHING to do with Fifty Shades of Grey (Gray?), and it's almost a shame that the books came out about the same time, because it does Sepetys' book no favors to create confusion with a story of that nature.

Between Shades of Gray is, in fact, an historical novel of the Soviet takeover and depopulation of Lithuania just as WWII was beginning.  In the horror of what Hitler did in so much of Europe, history has lost sight of what Stalin did--and did almost as horribly--in the Baltic states, another forgotten genocide.

The first-person narration by Lina, the teen-aged daughter of a university professor, manages to convey her tensions and fears effectively through a style that seems at first flat.  In fact, I restarted the story three times, distracted by other books (I keep a large selection on my MP3 at all times).  Part of my reluctance was knowing what I was getting into--a story of immense inhumanity and inevitable suffering.

What I forgot--and was brought powerfully back to me as the story progressed--was that all such stories are also stories of immense humanity.  As the political system, and the guards it created, unfolds as completely inhuman, focused on the destruction of a people, those people gradually move out of shock and self-focused fear and become, if anything, a stronger community than ever.

I appreciated that Sepetys did not sugar-coat humanity.  That is, while the political prisoners learned to stick together, and work together, they remain themselves.  The irritable and despairing Bald Man doesn't stop being either irritable or despairing--at least in his words.  But he does what needs to be done, including shutting up when Lina's mother insists.  People do desperate things to keep a family together, or protect a loved one, and Lina must move from condemnation to understanding--and does so, with a fairly convincingly adolescent reluctance.  The title, in fact, is an excellent reflection of the key thing she must learn--to move from the black-and-white world of childhood into a more nuanced understanding that can accept grey areas.

Perhaps my largest criticism is that the story ends rather abruptly, leaving me wondering how they survive the nine more years before being allowed to return to Lithuania.  However, the story ends at the point where, in essence, Lina grows up: when she becomes a leader and a major source of strength in their small band of survivors.  It is Lina's move from childhood to adulthood that makes this a story, not a history book, and not merely a recital of horrific events.

To return to the "flat" narrative style, because it has been criticized by a number of reviewers, I have to say that I found that flatness effective.  When telling of a traumatic event (which seems rather an inadequate description of ten years of penal servitude in Siberia), a person can either maintain an emotional distance, or dissolve into a pool of grief and loss, overwhelmed by what has happened.  Sepetys manages to convey Lina's feelings without overwhelming the reader.  It is a delicate balance which she manages pretty well.

I give Between Shades of Gray a just scant 4 stars, as I did feel a little dissatisfied with the ending.

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