Review Blog

Apr 06 2011

Between shades of gray, a novel by Ruta Sepetys

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Penguin. 2011. ISBN 9780143205418.
(Ages 12+) Recommended. Historical fictionalised biography. I was amazed reading this book, based on the reminiscences of the author's family, of the extent of Stalin's purges in the days when he was dictator in Russia. The Baltic states, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia came under his thrall during the years following World War 2. He systematically absorbed these countries into Russia, taking over their homes and cities, deporting many millions to the death camps in Siberia, where without proper food, clothing or housing many died. It is part of our history that is not well known, but this book shines a light on this little known aspect of Stalin's regime.
Using her father's memories and her own research in Europe, Sepetys added many of the stories she had heard to forge a tale of one girl's journey across Russia to Siberia and back. Lina and her family are bundled onto a train with carriages meant for animals, where they survive on bread and slops, all the while worrying about their father. Allowed one suitcase, they find life miserable. They are first held at a village in the Arctic Circle, where they must pay rent for their accommodation, and then they are herded back onto a train to go further north to a slave labour camp in Siberia. Here they are forced to build their own huts under the cold stare of the soldiers. Lack of good food and medicine sees the younger and older members die, while all the time the people pray for help and rescue.
Like many of the stories told about Nazi Germany and its treatment of the Jews, so this story will add to readers' knowledge of the brutality of one of the world's nastiest regimes, that of Stalin's Russia. The few that survived came back to their home degraded and humiliated, only to find that Russians now lived in their homes, and they were relegated to refugee camps, forbidden to talk of what had happened to them. This will be eagerly read by students wanting to know more of the world they live in.
Fran Knight

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