“I clung to my rusted dreams during the times of silence. It was at gunpoint that I fell into every hope and allowed myself to wish from the deepest part of my heart. Komorov thought he was torturing us. But we were escaping into a stillness within ourselves. We found strength there.”
Often when I pick up a book related to the holocaust, I put it back. Not because I don’t want to read about that time in our history but because as an avid reader, I’ve read so many books about it. I’ve read lengthy literature, short novelas, personal diaries and heartbreaking memoirs. I’ve read books that make me want to cry for hours and others that make sick to my stomach. Sometimes, its just hard for me to pick up yet another book that describes what I believe is the lowest point in our history as human beings. Even though we learned about it in school, it is still to this day, hard for me to imagine that we as a race as capable of such mass cruelty. We can all excuse a lone murderer because we can say “hey, that was just that one crazy person.” But how can we even begin to explain the fact that thousands of people on our earth allowed millions of others to be killed without cause? That we had both Stalin and Hitler, who were carting and shipping off people to die and no one was stopping them? I have a hard time wrapping my head and my heart around it. It shouldn’t be true. The fact that we as humans are capable of feeling overwhelming love and compassion should make such acts an impossibility. The fact that it didn’t, is still deeply painful to contemplate. So no, I don’t always want books when I read that this time period is what they’re about, but I’m glad I gave in with this one (much like when I convinced myself to read The Book Thief.)
Between Shades of Gray is about a young Lithuanian girl, Lina, and her family being torn from their lives in the dark of the night, loaded onto a train and sent to a labor camp in Siberia. Although this story is about Stalin’s cruelty, it is as we all know, striking similar to what Jews went through in the Nazi concentration camps. They are packed into a train car so tightly they can barely breathe, not allowed to bathe, not given food, not even let off the train car to use the bathroom. This goes on for months as they are carted out of their homeland. The following passage is the moment when Lina is allowed out of the train car for a couple precious minutes for the first time.
“I got up and looked down the length of the train. The sky was gray. Rain fell steadily. I heard a scream and saw the limp body of a child heaved out into the mud. A woman tried to jump out after the corpse. She was smashed in the face by the butt of a rifle. I saw another body thrown out. Death had begun to gather a crop.”
As their story continues, the constant cruelty is punctuated by small moments of light. Lina’s mother is able to get off the train at one point and comes running back, her skirt full of candy for everyone in their car. After days of grimy darkness, the colors of the candy spilling across the train car is a brief recollection of their ability to feel joy. These small moments make the rest of it almost bearable. They are reminded of something to live for, even something as small as candy, and they are reminded of something more important, kindness. Lina’s mother is one of the few who realizes that they need to stand together and take care of each other. Her character emphasizes how important it is to be kind even in the worst situations. To hold onto our own humanity, no matter what we endure. She is a constant beacon of steady hope in Lina’s story.
Also weaved into the plot is Lina’s memories. This is how we meet her father and learn about their life before the deportation. Lina was going to be an artist. As the book progresses, we experience her emotions and impressions through what she draws at night in the dark shadows of the train car and later in the freezing snow of Siberia. She expresses herself through charcoal etchings and pencil sketches that we as a reader, can only imagine. But her memories.. her memories shine with sunny afternoons, silk dresses, swimming in the moonlight, love, laughter and comfort. They are full of wonderful textures, heavenly tastes, the richness of colors. Her memories as so bright, they make her current situation seem even darker. Sepetys is very careful to slip them into Lina’s story at regular intervals to remind us not to get used to her situation. Not to let the horror become commonplace. She reminds us constantly, this is not OK. This is not what life should be.
Although Between Shades of Gray is not the best book I read this year, it was still very, very good. Especially being Ruta Sepety’s first novel, it was incredibly impressive that she managed something so beautifully rendered. Between her and Tea Obreht, I am beginning to feel like I am a bit of slacker for not writing a heartrending novel by the age of 26. Thanks for that, ladies. (Just kidding, I’m really just jealous, its true.)
There are a few points that became jarring for me where I felt it could have been improved. I wish Sepetys had used a different action or adjective rather than the same ones repetitively, such as for Lina’s exchanges (in her memories) with her father, she says ‘tease’ over and over and over.. its a bit tiring. She teased, he teased, I teased back, he teased me. I feel that with a little more editing and just a dash of restraint on the intense happiness of Lina’s memories, this book would been absolutely brilliant. But that could just be me. Maybe Lina did have an absolutely perfect life prior to her deportation, maybe she only remembered beautiful moments to escape from her current hell. Maybe, I don’t know. I feel that sometimes remembering small hurts and seeing them in comparison to the large ones, the foolishness of our emotions at the time, the shallowness of our supposed pain, can be even more startling than remembering rainbows and ice cream. But that could just be me. My life experiences could be overshadowing my relationship with with Lina’s story. Which, in truth, I believe is just fine because every book should speak to each of us differently.
I do know, no matter what you’ve gone through in your life, no matter what type of reading you enjoy, no matter how many books you’ve read about Stalin, Hitler, the Holocaust or World War II, you’ll still greatly enjoy this book. It is incredibly sad, beautiful and touching. Today is the morning after I finished it and I still don’t know how I really feel about the ending. It may take me a while.
So if you pick it up at the bookstore or library and you aren’t sure? Just do what I did, give in. It is undeniably worth it.