Nearly all World War II novels revolve around battle clashes, a soldier’s sad views and morals, German resistance members, and most definitely, the stories of the lives of the Jewish as they were forced to embark on a terrifying journey that many did not get a chance to live through. But while we have heard so many heartbreaking memoirs and cried so many tears for the innocent Jews, what was happening in other parts of Europe — specifically Latvia and Estonia? Were they in turmoil as well? Were families being destroyed, lives endangered, people lost, and bitter tears shed?
Ruta Sepetys’ historical fiction book, “Between Shades of Gray,” answers these questions in the most poignant and emotional manner. She paints the tender story of a young artist, Lina, who lived in Latvia, with a loving father, a doting mother, and a little brother whom she adored.
When the Baltic regions were annexed into the Soviet Union, Latvia was placed into the hands of the Soviet communists, who feared anyone with the courage to defy their ways. In response, they rounded up nearly 20 million people that they saw as potential threats to power. For Lina and her family, those stories were so far away.
But everything changed when the stories became reality and were left on her front door. Arrested from their home and charged as criminals, Lina, her mother, and her brother were stuffed into cattle cars with nearly nothing in their hands.
Among them were a harmless librarian, a teacher, a bald man claiming to be only a stamp collector, the wife of a Latvian military officer and her 17 year old son, and a mother and her newborn snatched out of the hospital at the moment of the child’s birth. There was no food, no water, and only the ominous thought that Lina’s father, who had been taken away separately, was dead already. But somehow, together, the mis-matched group learned to cope and lean against each other, no matter how frail their surroundings were. And it was under unfathomably harsh conditions that Lina learned to fight.
She didn’t throw punches with her fists or battle with words, but with pictures. Leaving a trail of drawings and letters, Lina believed that someone — her father, a friend, a neighbor, a stranger–might find them and rescue her family and friends. And that was the only thing that kept Lina going — even when a woman was shot in front of her eyes, even when she went without food for so long, and even when she was taken by the Soviets who had but the one duty of killing her and other “threats.”
“Between Shades of Gray” is so much more than the resistance of a single person. It is more than just telling and reliving all of the roughness and malicious sides of humanity.
However heart wrenching, the story is of finding hope for survival, buried in feet of snow, covered in the blood of a child, and lost in the biting Arctic winds. And it is just as readers watch Lina dig within the ice, wash away the blood, and stand alone in the winds, that we realize just how much fearless hope and fight can be carried on the shoulders of one girl out of the 20 million others.
Kate Tsui is freshman attending Darien High School. She enjoys reading and am always looking forward to new book recommendations from friends. She likes to travel, paint, and play the piano