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Review: Between Shades of Gray

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: 1941. Lithuania. Lina Vilkas is fifteen when the Soviet secret police come to her home, giving Lina, her mother, and her younger brother twenty minutes to pack their bags.

Twenty minutes.

They are put on a train, and, along with other men, women and children, sent to Siberia. The cattle cars are labelled “thieves and prostitutes.” The people are a collection of university professors (like Lina’s father), military officers, teachers, and others viewed as “criminals” by the Soviets. It includes the relatives of the criminals, like Lina and her mother and brother Jonas.

Lina goes from sheltered daughter and art student to someone who huddled in a cold shack, foraging for scraps of food, wondering when, and if, she will be able to survive.

The Good: The first chapters have some stunning sentences that, in a handful of words, shows the horrors that Lina will be living through: “They took me in my nightgown.” “It was the last time I would look into a real mirror for more than a decade.” “Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.”

Lina is plunged into a strange new world, and while the reader can anticipate, a little, just how bad it will get, Lina is teenager in 1941. She doesn’t know; she is protected by her age, protected by her parents, and protected by living in 1941 and not knowing, as the reader may, that Stalin’s occupation of the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) will result in massive deportations. She does not know that they will be sent to Siberia, to the Gulag; that Stalin will be responsible for the deaths of twenty million people. So, if at times Lina takes risks or is thoughtless in what she says — she doesn’t know. As for how much the reader knows? I had a vague, general idea. After all, I’m a child of the time when the USSR still existed. I knew, vaguely, generally. I did not know the details; like, for instance, that people like Lina and her family would be sentenced for twenty-five years. That when the prisoners are dumped in Trofimovsk, the North Pole, after 440 days of travel and forced labor, that they would have to make their own shelters with scavenged materials, while the Soviet military live in buildings and eat food sent by the Americans.

I did not know the details; and that is what Between Shades of Gray provides, the details of living, of dying, of survival. Of finding love and beauty and hope in bleakness. Part of what gives Lina hope is her age: she is young, young enough to have just enough rebellion in her heart to keep going day after day. Part of what gives Lina hope is her art: seeing things as an artist, and also being an artist. Making a record of what she sees and how she sees it.

Between Shades of Gray made me cry, over and over. It also left me wanting to know more; it covers over a year in Lina’s life, but, as is shown in an epilogue, Lina and the other deportees that managed to survive would not return home until the mid 1950s. I want to know more, about Lina, her family, her friends; but I also want to learn more about this time and place. Between Shades of Gray is a Morris finalist; and it’s beautiful writing, a heartbreaking story. Yes, this is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2011. I’ve now read two of the five Morris finalists, enjoyed both, but am holding off with guessing what the winner will be until I’ve read all five.

About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is


  1. I was gripped from the first page, found the storytelling fluid and read straight through. I also cried several times. This one was on my Printz radar and I was so happy to learn it was shortlisted for the Morris. A definite best book of 2011!

  2. Nicole, they’re discussing this over at Printz. I’m mulling their critical take. I’m also glad to see it got the Morris nod. And that I finally read it; I’ve wanted to for ages but other books just “had” to be done.

  3. I keep hearing such fantastic things about this book. I’ve not read a great deal of historical fiction but can see where I might have to dive into this one sooner than later given all the critical acclaim.

  4. Michelle, especially since you don’t usually read historical fiction, I’m interested in your response.