Book Blog -- BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY by Ruta Sepetys

Katherine Longshore 6 Tuesday, June 07, 2011
Recently there’s been a lot of action (and reaction) on Twitter and the blogosphere from the YA community over an article in the Wall Street Journal.  The author claims that bookstores have succumbed to the weight of darkness in literature for young adults.  And that there is nothing for the discerning (and concerned) parent or teen to mitigate this.

I can’t help but think that this is a rather blinkered view of the world, because we can’t (or at least shouldn’t) protect our children from what is really going on the world.  From the addict sleeping in the doorway down the street, from the radio report of the high school students who witnessed rape and did nothing to prevent it, from the images of war and uprising on the nightly news.

I think the reason people retreat from such depictions in fiction is because we empathize with the characters.  They become real to us in a way that the images on the television or the words on the radio don’t.  Because we can get into a character’s head in fiction, we feel more strongly about her sleeping on the sidewalk than we might about the man we cross the street to avoid.

I, personally, would love to believe in fairies at the end of the garden.  I would love to shut my eyes and think that the war in Afghanistan or the turmoil in Syria are far away and none of my business.  I would love to think that addiction and depression and meaningless acts of cruelty won’t happen to my children.  But I would be deceiving myself.  And betraying my responsibility to them.  To let them know the truth.

I recommend Ruta Sepety’s BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY because of its unflinching descriptions of the atrocities waged upon the “undesirable” populations of the burgeoning Soviet Republic during and after the Second World War.  We have all read Anne Frank and understand the implied violence enacted upon her and her family after the diary ends.  But how many of us knew what happened to the Lithuanians, the Estonians and the Latvians in Stalin’s Russia?  How many of us truly know the meaning of being sent to Siberia?

Ruta Sepetys writes beautifully spare prose to describe the experiences of fifteen-year-old Lina – a girl who wants to be an artist, who admires her older cousin who wishes to be a doctor, who sees the cruelty of the world and makes sense of it through her own vivid imagination.  I was entirely engrossed from the first haunting line: “They took me in my nightgown.”  In little twists and droplets, Sepetys brings in a host of characters and illuminates the desperate Siberian landscape.  The humanity in this story is breathtaking.

There is much darkness in this novel.  People die.  Horribly.  There is cruelty.  Bitterness.  Injustice.  Terror.

But I would never in a million years suggest that teenagers should be sheltered from it.  Because there is also truth.  It’s an historical novel.  Things like this really happened.

And within the darkness, there is also love.  Forgiveness.  Acceptance.  Courage.  Hope.  There is the truth of human experience.

And in that there is light. 


I will never forget the way I felt when I first read Anne Frank or "Farewell To Manzanar" or, in my 6th grade class, "On The Beach". Scary stuff, but my awareness of the world was instantly heightened and my sense of caring. Would much rather have my child read these books than be the shooter/zombie-slasher/etc. in all those myriad of games out there. I consider Sepetys book an important read, hopefully read with parent or teacher standing by to answer questions.

Beautifully said, I couldn't agree more. I've been hearing wonderful things about this book. I'm going to have to check it out. Thank you!

As always, Katy, a thoughtful and beautifully composed response. I agree wholeheartedly.

I love when a writer captures what I'd think if I took the time to make it eloquent and powerful. :) Thanks, Katy. Will put Shades of Gray on my to buy list straight away.

This is the kind of book I usually "protect" myself from, because books like this tear me apart.

But you're so right: ignoring this history doesn't help anyone at all, and maybe it is our duty to remember.

Also, I feel like I need to clarify - just because I don't often read books featuring depression, cruelty, or addiction does not mean I'd prevent young adults from reading them.

Thanks, everyone! I know what you mean, Beth, and completely understand. And I do hope those of you who want to pick up this book. A librarian friend of mine told me she sends teens to the young adult section to experience the world safely. I am very grateful I only experienced the things Lina did through Sepetys's lovely words.

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