Back when I worked in Duluth, an elegant middle-aged man used to come by the newsroom now and again to chastise us about Estonia. He usually showed up after we had run wire news from the Soviet Union; if the story carried a dateline of Vilnius, USSR, or Tallinn, USSR, or Riga, USSR, he would voice his firm objection.
USSR, he would tell us -- calmly at first, and then with mounting frustration -- did not belong in the dateline. These were not Soviet cities; these would never be Soviet cities.
The man had fled Estonia in the 1940s when it, along with Latvia and Lithuania, was annexed by the Soviet Union. Over time, he had made it his mission to pound into our young and history-deprived journalist brains the sad fate of the Baltics.
If only Ruta Sepetys' novel had been around then; it would have hammered that history home.
"Between Shades of Gray" -- billed as a young-adult novel, but one that everyone should read -- opens with a clash between normalcy and terror. On a balmy June evening in 1941, a 15-year-old Lithuanian girl named Lina sits down to write a letter when she is interrupted by someone pounding on the front door. Soviet secret police burst in and order the family to pack their things and get out.
What follows is a series of intense scenes, almost unbearable in their detail. The family is crushed with dozens of other deportees into one car of a long train labeled "Thieves and Prostitutes." There, with no bathroom, almost no food, no ventilation, nowhere to sit, they must endure an interminable journey east, and north, into exile.
Just when you, the reader, think you cannot breathe that fetid air another moment -- Sepetys' writing is that vivid -- the train stops, and the Lithuanians stagger out and find themselves in Siberia. They spend most of a year in a labor camp, living in deprivation and squalor, but it is nothing compared to where they are sent next -- Trofimovsk, above the Arctic Circle, where there is no shelter for them at all.
In the face of this brutality, however, there is humanity, humor and love. Lina's mother maintains a calm dignity, reminding Lina and her brother that even in the worst of times they must treat others with respect. Lina learns not to judge the woman who becomes the Soviets' concubine, or the woman's son, who uses his access to luxury to steal food for the other prisoners.
Sepetys' father escaped Lithuania during the war, but many of his relatives were sent into exile. Sepetys spent years researching this period in history, traveling to the former Soviet Union, taking what must have been meticulous notes. This book sings with truth.
Laurie Hertzel, the Star Tribune books editor, is the co-author of "They Took My Father: Finnish Americans in Stalin's Russia."