Between Shades of Gray – Ruta Sepetys
Note: Book Giveaway Below!
Marirosa Mia: I'm very grateful to have my dear friend Elizabeth here to talk about BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY with me. This novel was passed around my office for several weeks, from one hand to the next. Each time with one simple warning: You will cry. Everyone from the sappiest to the most cynical among us passed the novel on with that same warning: You will cry.
Still, when my turn came, I was sure I would be the first to break this cycle. I would not cry. I had no idea what BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY was about, but I was certain of one thing: I would not cry. Even though I tear up the second that ASPCA commercial comes on (you know the one) or during every single Pixar movie (don't lie, you do too), I decided that this time, I would not cry.
Before we find out whether or not I cried, let's take a moment to summarize the novel. BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY, by Ruta Sepetys, is the story of Lina, a fifteen-year-old girl who in the summer of 1941 finds herself ripped from her home along with her mother and younger brother by the Soviet secret police and sent to a gulag in Siberia. Her father - separated from his family - is sentenced to death in a prison camp. Lina vows to use her love of art and writing to document the pain and struggle that now fill her everyday life.
You're darn right I cried. Elizabeth?
Elizabeth: Did I cry? I cry almost every day. I cry while watching TV and movies, or while listening to sad stories on This American Life or Tori Amos albums, and, of course, while reading novels about genocide. I find this to be such a silly subject for discourse. It infuriates me that people in our culture make such a big deal out of crying. If the Miami Heat want to cry after losing a few games, fine, let them, and let's not discuss it for three hours on ESPN. So, yes, to the larger question implicit in this notion of "will one weep?": Does the author succeed in crafting a beautiful novel in which dynamic characters in terrible conditions evoke an emotional response from the reader?
Sepetys takes me through a period in world history that I know only as a few sentence synopsis and helps me to understand the human suffering embedded in the facts. She does not shy away from complexity; she doesn't rely on simple definitions of "good" and "bad" for her characterization of the soldiers and the prisoners.
M: So true. Sepetys doesn't shy away from showing us what our characters would do in order to survive. What a mother would do to keep her children safe (well, as safe as one could be in a gulag) - shown in two separate instances. Both through the actions of Lina's mother and then through Andrius' mother.
And as you said, not all prisoners and soldiers fit neatly into one category.
I loved that Sepetys showed us the resilience and constant determination of our characters even though they themselves probably thought all hope was lost. In particular Elena - Lina's mom - who from the very beginning set the tone she would keep for the rest of the novel as she smashed her belongs to bits ("Because I love them so much.") before the Soviet police could get a hold of them.
And then there's the relationship between Lina and Andrius. But more on that in a bit. Elizabeth, what stayed with you after finishing the novel?
E: Actually, it is that relationship that stayed with me the longest, the idea that even in the worst of circumstances people continue to be people. Lina is a girl on the edge of becoming a young lady and here comes this handsome, mysterious boy. What's a girl to do but fall for him? It's the way of the world! The oppressors in this book tried desperately to strip that humanity away, but what a futile goal.
M: Very futile. What I loved about that relationship in addition to what you just mentioned was how conflicted I was about it. On the one hand I wanted it to flourish, to fight; for them to find a little bit of light and love in all that darkness. It made my heart flutter. On the other hand, I was petrified. Here I was getting very much attached to them together yet at the same time I was filled with anxiety and fear. Would they make it? What did the end of this journey hold for them? Would this book break my heart? Please, please don't break my heart. I think it's a testament to how well written this is that I wanted to author to disregard history, to throw it all away for love.
E: You romantic, you! But, yeah, you're right, Sepetys did a great job of creating that tension. She created believable lives and conflicts within unalterable historical facts- not an easy task at all. I hope that this book finds its way into junior high and high school Global History classes. It would be a great text, like NIGHT by Elie Wiesel or WHEN MY NAME WAS KEOKO by Linda Sue Park, to help bring facts to life and remind us of the human side of politics.
M: Me too! And to help that along. I happen to have 2 (yes, two!) copies of BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY to give away today. Winners will be chosen at random from the comments section! Make sure to enter to win a copy of this lovely book for yourself or to donate to your local school/library. Winners will be announced next week! And for more information about BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY please visit the official book website.