by Candace Fleming
Schwartz & Wade/Random House
|Between Shades of Gray
by Ruta Sepetys
Last year Sugar Changed the World, which I co-wrote with my wife, Marina Budhos, was entered into this battle, and Adam Rex struggled to evaluate it against Jonathan Stroud’s compelling Ring of Solomon, a fine fantasy novel (it won). As Adam wrote, narrative nonfiction and fantasy were a perfect case of apples and oranges. I face a similar though more tangled issue this year: Between Shades of Gray is a novel, based on considerable research, which adds an important and tragic true story to the shelves of literature for young readers. Its power comes from bringing to light what has too long been hidden: Stalin’s use of the gulag to crush the artistic and intellectual flower of Lithuania. Amelia Lost makes use of an innovative narrative structure more conventionally employed in fiction to retell the familiar story of the adventurous life and mysterious disappearance of Amelia Earhart.
We have fiction whose largest claim is nonfiction, and nonfiction whose power comes from its resemblance to fiction. I feel like a hapless kid in dance class, whose feet keep getting tangled up. I wish the contest offered “best in show” prizes within a genre—then I could just honor these two fine books for what they have accomplished, rather than having to invent some way to compare them.
Serving on the National Book Award jury last year was particularly rewarding because a cluster of books came to us that, for the first time in decades, began to deal with Stalin and his crimes. For way too long, all of the moral and historical challenges of European history in the 20th century have been telescoped into the Holocaust. But, in fact, Stalin murdered nearly as many people as Hitler (and Mao slaughtered far more). And yet those other abominations had only very rarely been explored with our readers. Last year that began to change with Eugene Yelchin‘s wonderful (and I am so pleased to say, Newbery’s Honor-winning), Breaking Stalin’s Nose, Randi Barrow’s appealing Saving Zasha, and if you read carefully, even Joseph Bruchac’s page-turning Dragon Castle. The book to go furthest in exposing these hidden crimes was Between Shades of Gray.
Ruta Sepetys comes from a Lithuanian family, and clearly felt a personal sense of mission in writing this novel. That is evident not just in her extensive research, but in the care in which it is written. In a series of short chapters, each perfectly attuned to the attention span of her intended readers, she captures the experience of 15-year-old Lina, who is forced onto a train with her mother and younger brother—sent on to an unknown destination, which turns out to be a brutal camp in the frozen far north, well above the Arctic Circle. Lina’s family is suspect because her father had been thoughtful and a bit outspoken. But they are not alone. Stalin had determined to completely absorb the Baltic States – Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania—into the Soviet Union, and thus rounded up and exiled anyone with a spark of independent thought. The novel captures the crushing weight of Stalin’s plan in the day-by-day privations — so little food, warmth, shelter, rest that death lurks everywhere — even as, through Lina, her artistic talent, and her determination to find her father, there is also a heartbeat of hope.
Amelia Lost is an important, in some ways brilliant, book, in a totally different sense. Candace Fleming has found a way to take a story many readers may know, or half know, and turn it into a page-turning tour-de-force through her adroit use of form. She alternates the moment-by-moment drama as Amelia’s last radio transmissions crackle across the airwaves with the aviatrix’s full life story—until the two strands are fully and fatefully joined in the final step of her final flight. Russell Freedman had used a related technique in The Voice the Challenged a Nation, when Marian Anderson’s love of music juxtaposed with the racial restrictions she faced. But while YA fiction is full of novels constructed in flashbacks, alternating voices, and even intercut realities it is unusual for nonfiction to be as open to creative experiment. Kudos for to Candace for showing the way.
Just as Ruta hits it just right in her pacing and flow, Candace makes wonderful use our of captured eyes. We need to know what will happen next, so we can linger a moment to learn more about the real Amelia—the determined businesswoman, the sometimes cutthroat competitor, the consciously-created symbol of female independence. She has made an “I already know that” book into a “must read.”
Hesitations: In some sense the protagonist of Ruta’s book is Lithuania, with the characters serving to recount a nation, lost and found. That can feel a bit programmatic. The only other concern is one I don’t know how she could have met. While Ruta acknowledges anti-Semitism among the Lithuanians in the story, I don’t think she fully reckons with it. That is hard, because the Lithuanians were victims, and this is their story. And yet too many were also victimizers—90 percent of the Jews in the Baltic states were murdered, and some Lithuanians actively, even eagerly, collaborated with the Nazis in this destruction. I don’t think the story needed to be different, but perhaps just a beat more weight of facing that past in the author’s note would have helped—especially since deeply troubling anti-Semitism has flared up again in the modern and free nation of Lithuania.
In Candace’s case I once again found almost the opposite problem. She uncovered and shared so many close-in and fascinating details, from Amelia’s elementary school report card to the list of her awards and a short course in Morse Code, that when she hits her 128th and last page, the book comes to an abrupt end. She has room to rush through some of the theories about Amelia, but not to give us a big picture sense about why she, and this story, matter.
If I could make this a tie, I would. But forced to choose I pick Between Shades of Gray. As books, they are equally well-crafted and worth reading. But Ruta’s novel does for the destruction of Lithuania what, say, Paula Fox and Tom Feelings did for the Middle Passage—gave our readers access to a haunting, tragic, and crucially important part of our common past.
– Judge Marc Aronson
And the Winner of this match is……
BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY
This second round match has always held a couple of unique possibilities: the Nonfiction Match (AMELIA LOST vs. BOOTLEG) or the Russian Match (ANYA’S GHOST vs. BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY). As it is, we have yet another disparate pairing. We championed both of these books on Heavy Medal, but it will not surprise anyone that I would have picked AMELIA LOST. You’ll remember that my one quibble with BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY is its single linear narrative arc, and I might’ve had the same complaint about AMELIA LOST, but for Fleming’s decision to intersperse the search and rescue efforts throughout the rest of the story, giving it a uniquely suspenseful quality. As for the big picture, Amelia continues to inspire feminists everywhere, and I’m hoping that enough of them will vote for her in the zombie round, but since I’m expecting OKAY FOR NOW to win by a wide margin, I’m not holding my breath.
Meanwhile, Lina moves on to face yet another badass female character.
– Commentator Jonathan Hunt
Marc Aronson has a unique familiarity with B.o.B that is different from most of the judges on the panel. Having had both the experience of his book being judged in the battle as well as having judged other books, his difficult decision between these two historical-based masterpieces was well written and adept. Between Shades of Gray was clever, detailed, and represented in horrifying clarity the true stories of the struggle between the Soviets and the third world countries around the time of World War II. This fast paced adventure had my eyes glued to the page and whose characters captured my heart. Amelia Lost is a biography, well written and overcame the challenge of my age group knowing very little about Amelia Earhart and her life. Overall, I found it very informative, but rather dull and boring. On this match, I will agree with Mr. Aronson and crown Between Shades of Gray victor.
– Kid Commentator GI