This is a difficult review to write, since this book has some personal significance: My grandparents were living in Lithuania during this time, and some of the stories they’ve told me were equally as horrific as some of the scenes described in this novel.
For a debut novel, Between Shades of Gray
is beautifully constructed. Lina, our narrator, is an artist. Throughout the book, she uses her pen and charcoal as an outlet to depict her anger, frustration and helplessness over what she witnesses—her completed drawings and watercolors becoming textured and layered with all of those pent up emotions. And even though art is her main form of expression, Lina’s able to take that same artistic talent and apply it to her storytelling. Her story is just as textured and finely detailed, with no attempt to shield her audience from her harrowing experiences. Yet despite her negative sentiments, Lina’s never consumed by them; underlying her entire story is hope and love. This is how Lina’s able to see between those shades of gray…. Thus in a way, Lina is using words to paint an expressionist work, one that could rival the work of her favorite artist—the expressionist painter Edvard Munch.
Even though the subject is certainly heavy, Sepetys does include a few cute little details—though, if you don’t know some Lithuanian, they can easily be missed. For instance, the names of her characters: the “Vilkas” family, i.e. the “Wolf” family, Miss “Grybas,” or as Miss “Mushroom,” Mrs. “Rimas” aka Mrs. “Rhyme.” And as a side note, the name Jonas (John) begins with a “y” sound (as in yawn), if you want to pronounce the name with a Lithuanian accent. So instead of “Joan-us”, it’s “yawn-us.” The letter “j” in Lithuanian is pronounced with a “y” sound—“Marija” is “Maria,” as another example.
Also, Sepetys doesn’t portray all of those Russian soldiers as the antagonists —something my grandmother always states when she tells one of her stories. Many of those soldiers were only boys, like Kretzsky, and hated their job. But regardless of their personal feelings, they were forced to act as representatives of their government in order to survive.
This is truly an excellent novel, showing the amazing capacity of the human spirit to survive against all odds.