Discovering a Different Side of WWII with ‘Between Shades of Grey’

So let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: this book is in no way related or connected to 50 Shades of Grey. (Although I am considering starting a YouTube show featuring a technical critique of that series. Seriously, there’s so much material I could feasibly have a 200-episode series on my hands.)

But I digress, for this is not that book, despite the unfortunate name confusion. Between Shades of Grey couldn’t be more different: this novel details the deportation and internment of a Lithuanian family in a labor camp in Siberia during World War II.

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I spent much of my early reading years with stories about children who were affected in some way by World War II – The Diary of Anne Frank, Summer of My German Soldier, Number the Stars. I’m not sure if that’s still the trend in children’s literature – it seems to have waned somewhat – but never in all of my time reading books about this period did I ever stumble upon one that looked, not at the atrocities committed by the Nazis, but rather the atrocities committed by the Soviets.

It was an interesting new perspective that author Ruta Sepetys undertook after interviewing dozens of survivors of the genocide of the Baltic people during a visit to relatives in Lithuania. While Sepetys considered writing a nonfiction book about these stories, in the end, the book that she wrote follows a teenage protagonist, Lina, and falls fairly firmly into the YA category of literature, despite its ability to appeal to a wide range of people (something that the friend who recommended this book to me addressed in her review of it).

I am a staunch supporter of all things YA – whether the reader is, in fact, a young adult or not –, and this book is no different. It doesn’t pull punches when presenting the atrocities of this period of history, and yet its protagonist is someone with whom teens of today can certainly identify. I especially loved how realistically she is portrayed: she is often selfish and naive to the point of being willfully blind to the plight of others, and despite her circumstances, she finds the headspace to fall in love. She stands by her values without questioning them, only to find that perhaps her values will need to be challenged in a place where morality is a blurred line at best (after all, at one point, the German army is considered as a possible savior from the hell that Lina and her fellow prisoners are enduring).

The only part of this novel that I found disappointing was the ending. The novel leads us through the minutia of day-to-day life before seeming to lose track of where it’s going somewhere in the last few pages. The ending is abrupt, the epilogue too keen on wrapping up every loose end. These points aside, however, this book offered a novel and unique look at a part of history that seemed to me to have already been examined from all sides, and I now stand happily corrected.