In 1941, the lives of 15-year-old Lina Vilkas, her brother and their mother are turned upside-down when they are forced from their home in the middle of the night. Deemed “enemies of the people,” they are expelled from Lithuania and forced to work in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia, where prisoners are routinely starved, brutalized and killed.
Under the 1939 German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, areas of Eastern Europe were divided between the two countries. The Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were annexed by Stalin, who deported members of the intelligentsia and their families to maintain control of the region.
These countries were under Soviet control for over 50 years until declaring their independence in the early 1990s. Unlike the well-documented atrocities of Jewish people in Nazi Germany, accounts of Soviet brutality have only recently become known.
“Between Shades of Gray” is a fictional story inspired by actual accounts and experiences of prisoners. It is told from the viewpoint of Lina, an aspiring artist, and follows the Vilkas family during their first few years of imprisonment in Siberia.
Lina is feisty and opinionated, a dangerous combination in an era of communist oppression. She secretly documents Soviet atrocities in her drawings.
Fellow prisoners become an extended family of sorts while working at a collective farm harvesting potatoes and beets.
Author Ruta Sepetys includes many agonizing scenes of cruelty: Soldiers round up a woman and her newborn child for deportation minutes after the woman has given birth. A callous commander buries prisoners as a joke, making them believe they are slated for execution. And there are grim executions of grieving mothers whose emotional outbursts are not tolerated.
Although the depravity is disheartening at times, Sepetys imbues uplifting stories of compassion, humor and a blossoming romance between Lina and a fellow prisoner.
“Between Shades of Gray” is an engrossing and poignant story of the fortitude of the human spirit in a dark time in Lithuanian history.