Between Shades of Gray

Written by Ruta Sepetys
Review by Kathryn Johnson

This young adult novel takes us on a journey through a land and time that is virtually uncharted territory for historical fiction readers of any age. It’s 1941, and Lina’s family plans to escape from their Lithuanian home before the Soviet secret police can come and take them. Things don’t work out that way. They are captured and sent to Siberia, but that’s not the worst of it. There’s the long trek, thousands of miles across Russia, then farther north still across the Arctic Circle, all the way to Trofimovsk on the Laptev Sea. Along the way Lina’s father is separated from the family and sentenced to death in a prison camp. But Lina is determined not just to survive but to somehow reunite her family through her art.

The story is realistic and vividly told, based on the author’s father’s experiences as a refugee. He, like Lina, fled Stalin’s cleansing of the Baltic regions. Sepetys has used stark details to paint a picture of the incidents along the way, creating an exciting, often heartbreaking, but always fascinating adventure for young readers. Hundreds of thousands lost their lives as a result of the dictator’s whims. Those who miraculously survived were brave indeed, and this novel is the author’s homage to both the survivors and the victims. Readers will identify strongly with the ever-determined Lina. The geography lessons of the Asian continent, in addition to the historical notes, lend themselves to classroom reading. We hope this fine debut novel will be followed by others from this author.