Between Shades of Gray focuses on a period of history often overlooked in YA historical fiction, mostly because it happened at the same time as the most Evil man in history was at the peak of his powers. Quite rightly, there are lots of YA novels on Nazi Germany out there, as it's a period of history we must never, ever forget. But nor should we forgive or forget the wrongdoing of Josef Stalin. Written through the eyes of fifteen year old Lina, this brave, unflinching book follows her as she is ripped from her comfortable Lithuanian home and deported in to the vast wasteland of Siberia. Lina, her mother and younger brother face unimaginable hardships, struggling to survive in the face of constant near starvation, brutality from the NKVD (better known today as the KGB) and near permanent sickness and disease, yet always clinging on to hope.
Meticulously researched as this novel has been (much of it is based on first hand accounts from survivors), Sepetys is wholly justified in making this a harrowing read at times. Lina's situation is so often bleak and hopeless that the reader celebrates those little moments of joy that flash through the narrative along with her. Lina herself is a resilient, sympathetic but crucially flawed heroine, and that makes her all the more believable. Who would be perfect in her situation? Both her mother and brother come across as a bit too virtuous at times, but we can forgive that as arguably the most important relationship is that between Lina and the seventeen year old Andrius, a boy she meets on the train deporting her to Siberia. That they have feelings for each is other is clear, but their extraordinary circumstances make their future together far from certain.
Written in an elegant style (but not too elegant, like The Midnight Zoo), the story is never predictable. The flashback scenes that appear alongside the main narrative hold an importance that is not immediately apparent, but when their significance finally gets revealed late on in the novel, it's a real stomach plunging moment. But that's in keeping with the nature of this story. The characters may deserve a Hollywood ending, after enduring such horror. But that's not how things really happened, alas. Above all, this is a celebration of the refusal of the human spirit to give up in extreme adversity. The mark of an excellent historical novel is when it makes you want to find out more about the period it is set in. 'Please research it,' the author asks of us in her Author's note. It is a mark of the power of this book that you will, indeed, want to find out more about how the Baltic states were effectively wiped from history during World War II, and in Stalin's (the second most Evil man in history?) terrifying regime afterward.