Karyn’s already talked about historical fiction. And a lot of people have been talking about this book (four starred reviews, nominated for Best Fiction and a big ol’ Newbery discussion at Heavy Medal), especially in light of the Morris shortlist recognition. Karyn’s also already talked about Morris and Printz — where the two awards overlap, and where they don’t.
So that pretty much covers the background. I thought it could be interesting to look at Between Shades of Gray with Printz glasses firmly in place.
This is an emotional story, very weighty, very important (Important with a capital I, in fact — an untold part of history made both personal and memorable). I have no quibble with the stars, with the BFYA nomination, or with its presence on the Morris shortlist. But when you are looking at a book with Printz glasses, it’s all about literary excellence.
There are many things about this title that work well.
Lina’s narration has moments where she says incredible, chilling things; it’s often very effective. (“That morning, my brother’s life was worth a pocket watch.”) The narration is simple, sometimes beautiful and generally feels appropriate to the circumstances.
There are so many details worked in to the story, and it never feels overloaded or slow. Sepetys, through Lina, includes heartbreaking images that stick with you as a reader: the calm man patiently winding his watch; Janina who has lost her dolly and has a nose tipped black with frostbite; Lina’s mother surreptitiously wiping her lipstick off when the NKVD is selling the prisoners. These moments are when the story is at its most powerful and when the title earns every single one of its accolades.
But there are also problems, both big and small, with the novel.
There are moments when Lina’s narration is too clumsy, too obvious. (“Two Soviets pulled a priest down the platform. His hands were bound and his cassock was dirty. Why a priest? But then…why any of us?”)
Many chapters incorporate a flashback from Lina’s old life which is meant to sound in counterpoint to the novel’s main timeline. Sometimes this contrast works well, but there are other times that they feel not only extraneous but downright cliche (her memory of a rainbow on page 72 springs to mind as an example).
The history in the story is not always explained very gracefully. The bald man in particular, who tends to do a lot of the heavy history lifting, gets lecture-y. (“Boy, you don’t understand. The Germans aren’t going to solve the problem. Hitler’s going to create more.” True, but I’d expect something more subtle for a teen audience.)
These issues are small but happen often enough to weaken the novel from a literary perspective. Larger flaws are the sometimes-flat notes to Lina’s characterization and the abrupt ending. When Lina talks about the NKVD (or politics in general, as pointed out at Heavy Medal), she becomes very one-note, very flat:
The NKVD’s hostilities strengthened my defiance. Why would I give in to people who spit in my face and tormented me each and every day? What would I have left if I gave them my self-respect? I wondered what would happen if we were the only ones left who wouldn’t sign.
It’s simplistic and it happens with unfortunate frequency. The net result is that there’s too much telling rather than showing in the narration.
The ending is awkward. It comes to a crashing halt when the polar night ends and the sun peaks over the horizon. It’s a hopeful, beautiful moment, but it leaves the story feeling empty and unfinished, even with the info-dump epilogue.
In the end, whether you’re pinpointing this book for Newbery or Printz, I’d say that it’s important but not quite distinguished enough for either. The comments are open, so please chime in!
Pub details: March 2011, reviewed an ARC