Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys’ debut novel is not to be missed. It’s been published as a young adult novel, but it is a novel for all ages and a story whose telling is long overdue. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are the Baltic states, those coastal countries that lie along the Baltic Sea between Poland and Finland. You can find them in any atlas up through 1939-1945, but had you looked at an atlas in 1955, those countries would be missing. In their place were Soviet borders along that same location between Poland and Finland.
How does a country disappear? That is the story that Sepetys tells in the person of fifteen year-old Lina Vilkas who begins the telling: “They took me in my nightgown.” It was June 1941 and Lithuania had been under Soviet occupation since 1939. Lina was not Jewish, but she was the daughter of a university president. In 1941 the Soviet NKVD rounded up doctors, teachers, artists, and all those classified as bourgeois. The men were separated from the women and children and all were taken away by trucks and then herded into cattle cars. Their destinations would be as far away as Siberia and the Artic Circle.
Lina was taken with her mother and her younger brother Jonas. They had twenty minutes to gather what they could. Lina, a budding artist who especially admired the emotionally charged paintings of Edward Munch, was more concerned about packing her drawing materials than her clothing. She left her home forever with only one suitcase and a summer coat worn over her flowered nightgown. At that moment none of the three knew that Kostas Vilkas, husband and father, had already been arrested, but Lina’s mother knew that the family silver and other treasures she had earlier sewn into her coat might be necessary to keep her children alive before the nightmare would end.
Sepetys draws the reader into the story before page one with two maps. The first map shows the distance Lina traveled. The second map, a timeline, gives a grim reality to Lina’s story, which is told in a voice direct, honest and often heartbreaking. Her tale of survival (not necessarily all of her family’s) is one of constant horror lived in disbelief of its occurrence. It is also a story of bravery, romance, art and love. Lina never loses her passion for art. Her emotional drawings, created throughout her ordeal, are saved in the lining of her suitcase become a life sustaining force.
The details of starvation, murder, betrayal, and dangerous acts of kindness give depth to Lina’s journey of 440 days. It is in the Epilogue that Lina brings her story to a close back in Lithuania after additional years of imprisonment in Siberia. Lina’s story, and thousands upon thousands of stories like hers, played out by thousands of exiled and imprisoned Latvians and Estonians, deserves to take its place among the most notable novels of the World War II experience