|Between Shades of Gray
by Ruta Sepetys
by Karen Blumenthall
When I hear the word “historical” in the vicinity of the word “book,” especially when we are talking about a young-person’s book, I tend to react like your average 12-year-old reluctant reader: eye-rolling, yawning, maybe some foot-stomping. I recognize that this reflex is unfair. Many historical YA books—fiction and nonfiction—are gripping and moving. (Waves to Charles and Emma, Marching for Freedom). But I’ve read enough that are wheat germ—healthy, chock full of good intention, flavorless—to bring out my inner 12-year-old.
Thankfully, my two selections, two very different kinds of historical books—Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition by Karen Blumenthal and Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys—had nary a hint of wheat germ.
Let’s start with the booze. I must admit, I was skeptical about Bootleg. A book about Prohibition? Would teens care? But then I realized that when you’re a kid, everything is prohibited, and so much of Blumenthal’s lively and often-funny book is about how everyday folk skirted Prohibition’s strictures and how hifalutin folk didn’t have to (during the height of Prohibition, upstairs at the White House was lousy with whiskey). Rule-breaking and hypocrisy? A glossary that includes terms like blind pig? What’s not to love?
Bootleg cleverly chronicles the buildup and fallout from Prohibition by focusing on specific characters. And lordy, what characters they are. We meet Carrie Nation, the Temperance radical who famously went to town on a number of saloons with a hatchet. Then there are Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith, New York City prohibition agents who brought an element of vaudeville to their police work. We see a young Al Capone, who got his toehold in this gangster business all thanks to Prohibition. At times, I wished that more space—an entire book, even—could be devoted to one of these characters, to look at Prohibition through a single narrative, as opposed to jumping from one to another.
Apropos of this being a children’s book Blumenthal takes care to show children’s place in Prohibition. Temperance advocates wanted to ban liquor to protect children. But once the law went into effect, because it was the sale of liquor, not its consumption that were illegal, many households became distilleries, which was dangerous, given the equipment and high temperatures needed to make moonshine. The book is filled with great period photos, including one showing youngsters drinking (pre-Prohibition) and another showing kids scooping up wine that cops have dumped into the gutters after the law went into effect.
Prohibition lasted about 14 years. In about the same time period, Joseph Stalin deported (and imprisoned and murdered) millions of Europeans and Central Asians, the particulars of which are brought to vivid and horrifying light in Ruta Sepetys’s gripping, if sometimes grueling, debut novel, Between Shades of Gray. Fifteen-year-old Lithuanian Lina Vilkas is roused from her bed one June night by Soviet agents. Along with her mother and brother, Lina is deported, first by freight-car-of-death (Stalin and Hitler apparently had similar transportation ideas) to a work camp in Siberia, and then later on to an unbelievably remote and inhospitable camp above the arctic circle, where the polar night means 180 days of darkness.
Lina’s story would be compelling enough if this were pure fiction. Lina is such an appealing character from the get-go, a spitfire of a girl who uses the artwork she creates as a means of both remembering her ordeal and communicating with her missing father. In the brutal Siberia, survival is hard enough; maintaining your humanity seems near impossible, but Lina, with the guidance of her mother—a character almost too perfect under these harsh conditions, one of the book’s few flaws—does come to understand that nothing is black and white, not the bleak gray Siberian landscape, or the sacrifices some people must make to keep others alive, or even the cruelty of the young Soviet guards.
Sepetys’s writing is both lyrical and harsh in a way that sneaks up on you and kicks you in the gut. A guard barking orders crushes a cigarette into the wood with his boot. “We were about to become cigarettes,” Lina thinks. Lina’s romance with a fellow deportee, both underscores and leavens their ordeal, which is as brutal as any Holocaust account.
And perhaps that’s what elevates this book. While there is an abundance of Holocaust literature, the stories of the millions whom Stalin deported and killed—essentially cleansed— have yet to be told in any kind of significant way, and certainly not in YA literature. In her author’s note, Sepetys says that the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia lost one-third of their populations during what she calls “the Soviet annihilation” and then were essentially wiped off the map until 1991. Lina’s story, though fiction, becomes all the more important because it represents a million stories that will never be to be told.
It’s not really a fair fight, is it? Bootleg is a wonderfully written, colorful history book, but it still reads like a history book. Between Shades of Gray is a harrowing, page-turner of a novel that shines a light on a piece of history too long shrouded in the darkness.
The winner: Between Shades of Gray.
– Judge Gayle Forman
And the Winner of this match is……
BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY
In contrast to Matt, Gayle did not have a natural affinity for her pair of historical books—and I think we are all eye-rolling, foot-stomping 12-year-old reluctant readers when it comes to particular genres. The challenge is to set those prejudices aside and appreciate the books for what they are (as Gayle does here). For me, this match was more competitive than it was for her, and I actually would have given the nod to BOOTLEG, not necessarily because of a fiction/nonfiction bias, but more because of a single/multiple narrative strand bias. The writing in BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY is so lyrical, the character so fully realized, the suffering so palpably affecting that I cannot fault anyone who goes with this choice—and I think most people probably would—but, being the plot-driven reader that I am, I found the narrative arc simplistic. Lina’s resilience will be further tested in the next round. Can she get past Amelia?
– Commentator Jonathan Hunt
This “average twelve-year-old reader” loves history. That may be the reason why I thought of this match as a tie: Bootleg was (and still is) a really good HISTORICAL non-fiction book, while the HISTORICAL fiction Between Shades of Gray (somehow!) didn’t quite get me. After reading Ms. Forman’s review, however, I truly realized how important Ruta Sepetys’s debut is. Not only is it a beautifully sad story, but it is one with a powerful message and raw emotion. Lina’s tale must be heard. A very good match, and a worthy victory by Between Shades of Gray.
– Kid Commentator RGN