‘Betweend Shades of Grey’ By Ruta Sepetys: The cruelty of history is beyond imagination

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Reading an analogy made between Hitler’s horrors and Stalin’s, I came to a literary comparison between “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” (Heather Morris) and “Between Shades of Grey” (Ruta Sepetys). And, because I put the first one in a painfully memorable book category, I did not hesitate to let myself be teleported by Ruta Sepetys’ ‘Between Shades of Grey’.

About the author  

Ruta Sepetys is a writer of Lithuanian origin, born in the USA, in 1967. Ruta says about herself that she is “a seeker of lost stories’’, the literary genre preferred by the writer being the historical fiction. For her contribution to the Lithuanian culture and education and for her efforts to make known worldwide the history of totalitarianism in the Baltic countries, she was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order for Merits to Lithuania in 2013, by the President of the country. She was, aslo, awarded the Carnegie Medal (literary award), in 2017, and her books have won or been shortlisted for over forty book prizes. Ruta is a # 1 New York Times bestseller. She has written four books which have been published in over sixty countries and forty languages and are currently in development for film and television. The debut novel is the one I’m reviewing today: “Between the Shades of Grey”.

for more information, visit: Ruta Sepetys | Seeker of Lost Stories

About the book

“Between the Shades of Grey” is a story whose drama deeply touches the reader. The characters and the plot are fictional, but they could just as well be real, because all the places, actions and horrors presented are detached from a black page of human history in general, Soviet in particular.

Very short and sad history. In 1939, the Soviet Union, under Stalin, occupied the Baltic nations – Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia. Subsequently, their inhabitants considered to be anti-Soviet (doctors, lawyers, teachers, career soldiers, writers, artists etc.) will be killed, sent to prisons or deported to Siberian camps. For half a century, these states have effectively disappeared from the map. The survivors from Siberia returned “home” in the mid 1950s, finding their homes occupied by Soviets, thus, becoming society’s pariah in their own country. During the Soviet genocide, the Baltic nations lost more than a third of their population. In 1991, 50 years after the occupation, the Baltic countries regained their independence.

The narrator of our story is Lina Vilkas, a talented young Lithuanian, only 15 years old. In the middle of the night, she is taken from home by the Soviet secret police and forced to board a wagon having an unknown destination, together with her mother and her 10 years old brother, Jonas. Her father, the rector of the University, had also been taken in similar conditions, and the family did not know any details about him. In a train station, the children manage a short and emotional dialogue with their father who was in another wagon and they manage to see him through a hole used for physiological needs.

This is only the beginning of hell – a frozen hell marked by injustice, pain, humiliation, starvation, death and which, on the other hand, Ruta Sepetys paved with the noblest human feelings, embodied in people capable of remaining human even at the cost of their own lives. I point out here the character of Lina’s mother who, although in the kolkhoz, in inhuman living conditions, feeds the illusion of normalcy through the anachronistic gesture of putting on a lipstick, on Christmas day.

The kindness, the compassion, the spirit of (self-)sacrifice, the dignity, the strength of character and the love that this woman shows, coagulates around her a nucleus of heterogeneous Lithuanians, united by a common destiny, by the determination to survive and, last but not least, by the love for their country. Ruta Sepetys evokes with a painful suavity sequences in which patriotism becomes the binder of the suffering masses. For the deportees, respecting the national traditions and customs is the very proof that they are alive, that they did not disappear from the map once they passed beyond the Arctic Circle.

Is there anything more moving than preserving spiritual landmarks, in such an obvious contrast to the abundant evidence of human brutality? The instinct for survival will outweight the guilt the deportees feel for staying alive; thus, they will learn the art of digging through the garbage, they will turn into thieves, homeless people and they will accept the unpredictable with stoicism, understanding that “Stalin’s psychology of terror seemed to rely upon never knowing what to expect.” From the midst of this hell and among the last vestiges of humanity, a young love appears and that pure love brings with it a feeling even harder to exterminate – hope.

Many times, the writer will not call the characters by their names, but she will refer to them using defining physical features – the unfriendly bald man, the altruistic man with gray hair – pointing out, once again, the deprivation of identity.

The title of the novel has many reverberations throughout the story (maybe too many but it’s easy to figure out the writer’s intention): “moon rays in gray tones”, “that was all I could see – gray everywhere”, gray sky, gray skin, gray skin excrescences (scurvy spots) and the watercolor used by Lina to paint is a mixture of snow and ash.

Deliberately, I left at the end the subject of the girl’s drawings because here’s where I felt the writer’s grace in writing. When historical events themselves are such a complex and sensitive subject, the narrator doesn’t have to struggle to create emotion. Ruta Sepetys, however, potentiated and nuanced this emotion so subtly, through Lina’s paintings, that even if it was only this artistic game and the book would still be worth reading. For Lina, painting is her second nature. The talented hand of the young girl transposes into drawings a wide range of emotions, situations, places, conflicts or people. Lina hopes that these drawings will reach her father, being useful clues for him to come and save his family. I was captivated by the drawing in which the young painter symbolically drew “the two devils who both want to rule hell” (Hitler and Stalin), while sharing their influence over Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland.

As for the repetitive references to the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (Lina’s idol), I looked for the paintings mentioned in the novel refers. They are called “Ashes” (!), “Anxiety”, “Despair” and “The Scream” and you may find them attached to the post. I found brilliant the insertion of Munch’s quote at the end of the novel, a quote that I ask you to read thinking about Baudelaire’s “The Flowers of Evil”: “From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.”

To the author:“Ruta, pasimatysime Naujajame Orleane, tavo antrojoje knygoje!”(“Ruta, see you in New Orleans, in your second book!” – Google Translation, Lithuanian language)  Quotes

  • “These three tiny nations have taught us that love is the most powerful army. Whether love of friend, love of country, love of God, or even love of enemy – love reveals to us the truly miraculous nature of the human spirit.”
  • “It is my greatest hope that the pages in this jar stir your deepest well of human compassion. I hope they prompt you to do something, to tell someone. Only then can we ensure that this kind of evil is never allowed to repeat itself.”
  • “Sometimes there is such beauty in awkwardness.”
  • “We’d been trying to touch the sky from the bottom of the ocean.”
  • “You stand for what is right, (…) without the expectation of gratitude or reward.”

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