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BetweenShadesOfGrayI began reading Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman at the suggestion of my kids. A book about good and evil and the Apocolypse, Satan at one point basically says that people have dreamed up more horrid and inhumane ways of torturing each other than even Satan could come up with. Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys’ haunting debut novel is testament to this fact.

While much has been written about the atrocities of Hitler during World War II, little has been written about the atrocities of Stalin in the early 1940s as he annexed the Baltic States of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. Lina, a fifteen year old Lithuanian, her ten year old brother and their mother are startled one evening by the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB, pounding on their door and telling them they have twenty minutes to pack their things. Thus begins a brutal 10 year journey that only some will survive, taking them across Russia to Siberia and ultimately to the Arctic Circle.

Man’s inhumanity to man is evident on every page as Lithuanians are categorized as “thieves and prostitutes”, beaten up, spit upon, made to work long hours with little nourishment; made to endure extreme cold with no wood for a fire or warm clothing. As I read this, I couldn’t imagine the joy the NKVD derived from taunting their captives who had nothing. I couldn’t fathom how the Lina and the other prisoners persevered under such dire circumstances, how they maintained their faith in returning home and how any of them survived at all.

Sepetys also describes how some of the captives were so self-centered as to do nothing for their comrades while others were so selfless, doing for everyone, even those who would not return the gesture.

Although it is impossible to feel Lina’s pain without having experienced her journey, readers will come as close as possible to living alongside the characters. Despite the stomach churning atrocities being described, I couldn’t put the book down because of the way Sepetys describes how people bolstered each other, how Lina drew her surroundings at first to keep up her spirits and later to document her life. I was amazed to find out from the Acknowledgements that even when finally allowed to return to their homelands, merely discussing their deportation was cause for imprisonment or a return to Siberia.

Between Shades of Gray is a must read. We all must hope that reading and talking about the atrocities of the past will eliminate them in the future.

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