Between Shades of Gray
Sepetys, R. (2011). Between shades of gray. New York: Philomel Books.
In 1941, fifteen-year-old Lina is taken from her home in Lithuania by the Soviet military, along with her mother and brother. Unknown to her father’s whereabouts, Lina and her family are swept from their house and thrown onto cattle cars with many other Lithuanians In the blink of an eye, her life changes forever. As her cattle car travels farther and farther away from her home, she experiences constant worry, as she remains wondering where her father could be.
In route to Siberia, Lina and her fellow Lithuanians are met with disgust, death, discomfort, and hunger as they travel packed into a single cattle car. Just when Lina thinks that her situation couldn’t possibly get worse, they come to their final stop – a labor camp. Forced to work in unimaginably cruel conditions for the mere ‘reward’ of a single piece of bread, Lina fights with the others to survive. In an attempt to pass the time, Lina finds an outlet for pain in her drawings. Through the pain and struggle, Lina is determined to make it out alive, no matter how hard survival may be. It is on this journey, that Lina discovers just how strong she can be.
Keywords: Escape, Love, Art, Loss, Journey
My Thoughts (Assessment)
Between Shades of Gray is a haunting and beautiful book about a time in history not often discussed. This story, based on the author’s own family history, focuses on Joseph Stalin’s genocide during World War II. While Hitler and the Nazis were rounding up Jews and forcing them into concentration camps, Stalin was secretly doing the same to the people in Lithuania and other surrounding countries. While the story undoubtedly casts a dark shadow – presenting themes such as loss, grief, and suffering – it also highlights themes of perseverance, compassion, family, and loyalty.
While I had not heard of this book prior to researching the title, after reading through the novel’s summary, I was intrigued to dive into the story. The more I read, the more I realized how relatable this book is to any and all of us. While the setting is one that not many can relate, the themes presented in the novel are both realistic, and relatable.
One of the main themes I felt a connection with was that of CHANGE. Lina introduces readers to this element of change from the very beginning as she examines her face in the mirror. She writes, “I had no idea how quickly it was to change, to fade” (p. 50). Throughout the novel, only one thing remains consistent for Lina, and that is change. She is forced to encounter a change in scenery, as she is transported from her home to Siberia, making various stops along the way. She is forced to endure change within her relationships, as both family members and friends are passed from cart to cart. Finally, she is forced to experience change in her role as ‘Lina,’ as she fights to stay alive at times when even death may seem like the easiest way out. Change is a theme that all young adults both live through, as well as can relate to. Lina’s character and the experiences she encounters are ones in which all readers can connect and sympathize with.
The second theme, and perhaps most powerful for readers is that of courage. Accompanying this theme of courage is the desire and will to survive at all costs. In chapter 81 (eBook), Lina finds herself contemplating life and death stating, “Was it harder to die, or harder to be the one who survived?” (p. 424). All throughout the novel, Lina is forced to be courageous. Living in a shadow of darkness, Lina experiences loss, grief, fear, captivity, and suffering at the young age of 15. Because young adulthood is not always glamorous, teenagers can relate to Lina’s feelings of being alone, afraid, and lost within herself, begging for a way out. She writes, “Everyone’s color had turned. Gray had crept beneath our skin, settling in dark trenches under our eyes” (p. 266). Forced to live in unthinkable settings, working day in and day out for a mere piece of bread, Lina and her peers began to lose color, to lose hope. It is not until the end of the novel that Lina finally finds a shimmer of light, symbolizing a sliver of hope in such a dark time. She writes, “I began my walk through the snow…that’s when I saw it. A tiny sliver of gold on the horizon…The sun had returned” (p. 443). HOPE.
Lina had experienced the unimaginable – taken from her home in the middle of the night; thrown onto a crowded train car with nothing but her suitcase; fear and worry about her father’s safety; confusion as to why she was being taken; heartache as she watched body after body give way to starvation and grief; sadness as she watched her mother take her last breath; lonesome as her last love is taken from her. And yet, through all of this, Lina is hopeful. “There were only two possible outcomes. Success meant survival. Failure meant death. I wanted life. I wanted to survive” (p. 424). Lina’s character offers readers strength and courage to fight on. Regardless of the obstacles and challenges young adults may face, Lina encourages them to press forward, to find that glimmer within the darkness. An amazing read that I would highly recommend for all young adults living through the trials and tribulations of every day teenage life!
What the Experts Say (Review)
“Between Shades of Gray made me cry, over and over. It also left me wanting to know more; it covers over a year in Lina’s life, but, as is shown in an epilogue, Lina and the other deportees that managed to survive would not return home until the mid-1950s. I want to know more, about Lina, her family, her friends; but I also want to learn more about this time and place. Between Shades of Gray is a Morris finalist; and it’s beautiful writing, a heartbreaking story. Yes, this is one of my favorite books read in 2011. I’ve now read two of the five Morris finalists, enjoyed both, but am holding off with guessing what the winner will be until I’ve read all five.”
Burns, Elizabeth. (2011). Review: Between Shades of Gray [Review of the book Between Shades of Gray]. School Library Journal. Retrieved from http://blogs.slj.com/teacozy/2011/12/19/review-between-shades-of-gray/
Travel Guide: Have students prepare a travel guide for someone who wants to tour Lithuania. Include a list and description of the most notable places to visit. Include a description of what the climate and topography are like. Also, students may include any interesting facts or pictures that help provide “attractiveness” to their travel guide.
Quest to Siberia: Have students draw a map, indicating all of Lina’s stops on her way to Siberia. At each “stop,” students must include an illustration of what happened there, a brief description to accompany the illustration, and a note on why this “stop” was significant to the novel.
Encoded Art: Throughout this war, and many other wars, individuals would use art to send encoded messages to the outside world. Have students create a journal of at least six to eight pages. Each page should include some sort of art with a “secret message.” The art can include: drawings, songs, poems, short stories, cartoons, etc. Under each drawing, students must explain the “secret message” that the artwork portrays using at least one to two sentences.