You should know, before you read any further, that this is not a review of Fifty Shades of Gray. That books was/is an apparently hugely popular fanfiction story turned into mega-bestselling BDSM book – I won’t call it a novel – that I never read. This book, Between Shades of Gray, should be a hugely popular, mega-bestselling novel. If it’s BDSM you want, move along. If it’s historical fiction based on one of the most horrific, and yet little known, parts of modern history you want, please stay.
But surely you can see the confusion between the two titles. After all, both books even came out around the same time. Even the author of my book, Ruta Sepetys, admits to the confusion but embraced it because;
…she counts the title confusion as a positive. Many of the E L James fans who wander into her readings — most of them men, she notes — stick around and end up learning something. (source)
Anyway, on to my review of Between Shades of Gray:
Lina Vilkas is fifteen when she, along with her mother and brother are ordered out of the house in Lithuania by the NKVD and ordered onto a train. She doesn’t know where her father is and they don’t know where they’re going.
It’s 1941, and Josef Stalin is in the middle of a fierce fight for the survival of the Soviet Union. For him, that means eating up territory as fast as Adolf Hitler is. Lithuania, along with every other Baltic state, and Finland, is made a part of the Soviet Union. The people in those countries, though, are regarded with suspicion, to put it mildly, and millions are put on trains marginally less terrifying than what the Jews rode to the concentration camps, and sent deep into the Soviet Union. The most common destination? Siberia.
That’s were Lina goes, first to the Altai region and then to places so barren that you probably didn’t know existed.
The story is heartbreaking. At the same time, it gives you hope because it’s a story of survival too.
You can’t help but put yourself in the place of Lina.
What would you do if you were given twenty minutes to pack a bag before you were put on a weeks long train ride, only to end up in a Soviet gulag where you got exactly 300 grams of bread each day, and only that, in return for working from dawn to dusk? What about when, as a fifteen year old girl, you’re told that your sentence is twenty-five years of hard labor for a crime you didn’t commit? And when a boy is nice to you do you trust him completely or do you worry he’s only lulling you into a false sense of security so that he can turn you in and get ten years added to your sentence and special privileges for himself? What about if a NKVD guard is nice to you, sometimes? Why is he nice? Why is he so cruel?
What about when you’re taken to a place on the Laptev Sea where there are no shelters whatsoever and you’re told to make shelter for yourself from driftwood before the polar winter comes? How do you keep living?
All these questions are reasons why I finished the 330+ page book I got on Monday night on Thursday afternoon. I couldn’t stop reading and I couldn’t stop thinking. When I wasn’t reading the book, I was thinking about it. So I read some more.
It’s classified as a YA novel, perhaps because Lina is a young adult, and the chapters are incredibly short, but all that lends itself to the story. It’s told through Lina’s eyes and anything more complicated would not be real to what Lina saw and experienced.
I knew Stalin had gulags where he imprisoned tens of millions of people but other than Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, which I have not read, I’ve never come across any books about life in the gulags. Now I’m researching the gulags and books about life there online.
For me, that’s the sign of a truly good book, one that I will read again and again.