"Part of me felt guilty. Was it selfish that I wanted to live, even though my parents were gone? Was it selfish to have wants beyond my family being together? I was now the guardian of my eleven-year-old brother. What would he do if I perished?" Page 320
I don't do non-fiction very often especially not the kind that deal with history and war and crimes against other people and detail how horrible people can treat one another. I'm a wuss with a weak stomach; I'm far more sensitive than you might guess and I'd rather not talk about it--and I'd really rather not read about it in my leisure time 'for fun.' Every now and then I come across some of these same themes that make me a bit squeamish in the fiction I want to read, as in Between Shades of Gray.
Between Shades of Gray is told in first person by Lina, a fifteen year old Lithuanian girl. She is told one day by her mother to pack a bag, and to hurry. The NKVD, which I learned was a precursor to the KGB, is deporting Lina's family along with hundred of thousands of other people from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. Lina's story is of her family's plight: being packed onto train cars meant for animals, of people being worked to death, starved to death, loss of so many things, of being treated worse than criminals for no known offense and it is also, surprisingly, a story of survival.
Lina forgets what she looks like, going more than ten years with out seeing her reflection. She forgets she was once pretty. She's surprised one day to learn that she has made a friend, a luxury in her previous life she had taken for granted. She loses parts of her family along the way to Siberia and the Arctic Circle, Stalin's ultimate destination for the deportees, but she never loses her pride or identity. Lina is easily the strongest and 'best' young strong female heroine I've come across in a while. She's a kid and she's angry. She's suffering obscene injustices and wants to do something about her situation. The fact that she never morphs in the comical fantasy heroine that gets me rolling my eyes kept the story's tension high and my interest in her suffering painfully sensitive. Her enemies are grown men with machine guns and a dictator that can't be touched. Her options in fighting back are limited but she does all that she can and endears herself to readers at every page.
For me it was the battles that should could fight that made such an impact, not merely because she endured--unfortunately so many were made to endure--but because of her initiative and refusal to let go of what little remained of her identity. She was made to fight to keep her family together and not sent off in different directions ( and the author beautifully succeeded in quickly explaining how bizarre, rare, and meaningful of a fight this is) she resolves to steal food, firewood and anything else that will see her through to the next day. She never gave up on seeing her father or homeland or understanding the mental difficulties she had to go through just to hold onto those dreams. In short, she reminded me a bit of my pound-for-pound all time great when it come to female heroines acting all badass: Sofia from Alice Walker's The Color Purple.
She doesn't win half the fights she gets involved in and most disturbing are the ones in which, for one reason or another, she is helpless. She and some of the other captives can identify scurvy and dysentery, but they can't fight illness while malnourished and made to live in a state far worse than what most will think of when it comes to poverty. Nor can she will sickness away or pray about until the sick get better. But she still does what she can. While over the years Lina forgets she's young and pretty in the beginning the NKVD certainly noticed both those facts just as they noticed that her mother was more mature and more attractive. She offers the best resistance she can against her tormentors who are stronger in every way and hold indescribable leverage over her. It's not like walking into work on Monday to find you co-workers have made a mess and you have to pick up the pieces. At every page stakes are at their highest and they continually seem to get higher as the story goes on.
There are brief flashbacks to the life Lina used to know. We see where her family and the other deportees came from, how they lived, what their 'crimes' were. It's a more powerful bit of perspective than you might think.
Sepetys prose is very immediate. There isn't a lot spent on internal psychology or setting: it's a story that moves forward at a near relentless pace. At times I wanted things to slow down; not for the sake of establishing impact rather I was exhausted. We meet new people along the way and say goodbye to (never bury) many many more but the pace, tone, and somber nature of the story and every page having what seemed to be a new highlight in all time lows only to be continually outdone really kinda ran me down as a reader. There were moments of introspection that I would have enjoyed getting further expansion. I wish I got to see more of the relationships Lina had with her mother, her brother, her 'boyfriend' and how they changed and affected her attitude and thinking for the future. I certainly didn't want less of anything that was given, rather some time in between not to look for the a glimmer of hope (remember it's fiction heavily based in truth) but an occasional reprieve to space out all the bad and perhaps see if Lina ever dreamed for a future like that past she so fondly recalls.
I haven't said much about the actual story because its so simple. In Lina's mind Josef Stalin one day told her 'Get on the train and let me show you how miserable your life can be.' It's not for lack of quality but this isn't the kind of happy, feel-good writing that I'll come back to once a year. That said, I'd love to what else the author is capable of writing.
This isn't the type of book I usually read. It's all story, plot, drive and getting the reader into events and making them care about what happens immediately. (After having written that I wonder why the hell I'm not reading more books like this.) Between Shades of Gray also kinda ugly in a very realistic way and while this may make me a little bit uncomfortable it significantly added to the book's impact. Between Shades of Gray was never so graphic as to be unsettling or turn my stomach but neither was it everyday comfort reading. It becomes abundantly clear at some point that the only good thing that can happen in this book is to be left with your life, and like many of the characters feel, it's hard to imagine whether or not one would want to go one living after all they been made to suffer. Human beings from all over and all walks of life maintain the capacity to be awful to each other far beyond my ability to express (or Sepetys' or anyone else's for that matter). It's not the kind of book I'd want to read everyday but putting myself in Lina's shoes, when she was fortunate enough to have them, sure makes for a phenomenal story.
Sadly, what is depicted in this bit of fiction happened. Happily, it's history. Hopefully, it'll never be repeated.