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Book Review: Between Shades of Gray

October 12, 2020

Spoilers for the book “Between Shades of Gray” by Ruta Sepetys ahead.

I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. I remember loving Picasso’s style from the time I was four. I received art lessons for Christmas when I was six and flourished in pens, pencils, and chalk pastels. When I was eleven, I switched my attentions to the impressionists.

So reading about another young artist who dreamed of being famous like her own favorite artist, Edvard Munch, was inspiring, but devastating. Because this artist was in the middle of a work camp in Siberia with death all around her.

We often read about the horrors of the Nazis, of Hitler, and the concentration camps. We learn about all of that in school, and we rarely discuss Germany without alluding to it. I’ve been a student of the German language since I was in the seventh grade. The Holocaust is a dark cloud hanging over it, but I don’t think any of us want it to go away, for us to forget it.

And yet, it seems that few people know of the atrocities of Stalin. This book brought ridiculous clarity to me. It was depressing, it was moving, it was beautiful. But at the same time, it was incredibly unsatisfying. For the entire book, attention is brought to the fact that the main character, Lina, is an artist. She draws on a handkerchief and hopes that it will be passed along to her father in a prison camp. She thinks about that often. She hides drawings all over the place in hopes that people won’t forget what happened to them. I held a hope that her father would come for her. That it would all work out.

They are shipped to practically the North Pole. Freezing temperatures with no food or warmth. Her mother, the strongest, most beautiful character in the whole book, dies after hearing that her husband was killed in a prison. Her brother nearly dies and would have if an inspection team hadn’t come at the last moment. There is hope for escape!

And then the epilogue comes. And yes, she escaped. She made her way back to the boy that she loved, and they married. Her brother escaped. But there is no word of what happened to the handkerchief. There is no context for how they returned to Lithuania or found each other. It leaves a hole in your heart.

And I think that’s the point. I think there was no other way to do this. The novel is called “Between Shades of Gray.” That’s an allusion to Lina’s charcoal drawings. In the end, it’s all gray, not black or white. Just different shades of gray. And all the characters in the novel are in that. They are doing the best they can with what they have, or they are complaining the whole time, or they aren’t helping each other, but in the end, it’s all gray. They are just trying to survive.

Life is in the gray area. We don’t know from one moment to another what’s going to happen. Memories fade to gray, we forget and don’t remember what’s come before. The Soviets painted eastern Europe in red, but now it’s gray.

While there are plenty of stories of miraculous reunions, there are far more that end in tragedy. The important thing is, even after everything, at the end of the novel Lina is kind and she wants to live. In spite of everything. We might not know what happened to the handkerchief, but it doesn’t matter where it ended up. What matters is that the handkerchief represented hope. And that hope is what shone light into the gray fog. Lina survives the winter. She survives Siberia. And she doesn’t just survive. She lives.

I’d recommend this book for slightly older readers. Probably 15 and up. There are some heavy themes and there’s a bit of explicit violence. But for as depressing as it is, there is a message of hope and love and the writing is beautiful.

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