It is books like this that make me thank my lucky stars that I am in an MLIS program with other librarians or student librarians who read and discuss fabulous YA. I just finished a class on young adult literature, and each week book talked a YA novel that we read. My fellow cohort member, Kristen (of The Book Monsters) talked about Between Shades of Gray. I had not read it but felt compelled to do so once I heard what it was about.
The book begins: THEY TOOK ME IN MY NIGHTGOWN.
Lina is a fifteen-year-old girl in Lithuania. The year is 1941. The book begins immediately with Soviet officers bursting into Lina’s home and giving her, her mother, and her brother twenty minutes to gather their belongings before they ripped from the only life they’ve ever known. One minute Lina is writing a letter to her cousin Joanna, and the next she is shipped off in a filthy, overcrowded train car (normally used to transport animals) and forced into a life of unbearable servitude in the far reaches of Siberia.
Lina recalls the events of the evening, realizing she should have noticed the signs, such as her mother burning family photos and sewing valuables into the lining of her coat. Only later did I realize that mother and father intended we escape. We did not escape. We were taken.
We learn much about the Holocaust in schools, as well we should, but I’m ashamed to say that I did not know much about Stalin’s annexing of nations like Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which meant the deportation of many “enemies” to brutal work camps in Siberia. That’s why Ruta Sepetys wrote this book:
During a trip to Lithuania I visited my father’s cousin. I asked if she had any photos of my father or grandparents. “Oh, no,” she replied. “We burned them all.” (www.rutasepetys.com)
Sepetys found that her father’s family thought he was dead for a decade. Many lives were interrupted and taken during the Soviet occupation, but education about this time in our recent history is not as mainstream. If we bring this book into our schools, it would be a great first step. Because this is written from a YA perspective, it’s the type of historical fiction that offers immediate connection for teens because the protagonist is one of them. Though our narrator is female, Lina is joined by an ensemble of both men and women…even a teenage boy, Andres. The community formed by the strangers who are deported together is one of beauty, as is the way Lina uses her art to try to survive while also recording her experience.
***Currently reading Insurgent, by Veronica Roth