Between Shades of Gray is a remarkable story of strength during the time of Stalin’s dictatorship. I tend to shy away from war type novels but I have heard so many amazing things about this novel that I knew I needed to read it. Before reading this I wasn’t really aware of the nightmares these people faced under Stalin’s reign of terror.
This book tells the story of Lina, her mother Elena, and younger brother Jonas as they are forcibly removed from their house in Lithuania from the Soviets one day. They are herded like animals in trains with only a rusty hole to relieve themselves from, and a bucket of water and slop for nourishment. Lina’s father, a college professor, never arrived home from work that day, and we later learn he was taken separately and imprisoned.
Lina’s family is a family of intellect and honor. All of the Vilkas family is caring, educated, and show love for family and friends. I don’t know why, but I was thinking this type of family dynamic in the 1940’s in Lithuania would be harsh, poor, and disconnected from each other, but Lina, an artist, was encouraged and praised by her parents for her stories and drawings, except when she became overzealous with hatred for Stalin. Her father tried to warn her to be careful. She was a sneaky thing, always listening in to her father’s meetings, trying to hear what was going on in the countries around her.
Lina enters this nightmare as a 15 year old girl and emerges fighting, a strong, passionate, caring young woman.To be shoved into this kind of atmosphere, and not lose yourself to the evil around you, would be extremely difficult. Lina kept her sanity and her strength by drawing and writing. She knew her drawings were unique and, if they made their way to her father, he could locate her by knowing they were from her.
The detail that the author lends to the characters was one of the greatest aspects to this story. Elena, Lina’s mom, was such a graceful, beautiful, kind woman who did not want to give up or give in to the NKVD. She did everything she could to stay alive for her children, all while staying loyal to her family and homeland. I could literally feel the love and genuine sweetness coming from her. Lina was outspoken and had an opinion about nearly everything, but loved her family and pushed through this horrific journey.
Komorov thought he was torturing us. But we were escaping into a stillness within ourselves. We found strength there.
Lina was not going to let Stalin win. Even in these horrific conditions, Lina and her mother and brother pushed on. They made friends with those they were enslaved with- Andrius, his mother, Miss Grybas, even the grouchy, depressing bald man. They were all forced to work when they arrived in Siberia-digging holes, making shoes, digging for beets-it was extremely hard manual labor constantly with a puny ration of bread as their payment. They were called fascist pigs from the NKVD. The women were leered at, children disregarded. I can’t fathom the measure of strength it would take to still want to survive after being spit at, worked to the point of utter exhaustion where your legs buckle, or starving daily.
What I loved about the characters is how they helped each other. They risked their lives to steal beets to feed a hungry friend, gave up their ration for a sick child, stole wood to keep everyone warm. No one wanted to do this alone. Even if the risk was great, they valued those around them. Andrius was one of my favorite characters besides Lina. He was the light in this dark tunnel for Lina and Jonas.
Don’t be scared. Don’t give them anything, Lina, not even your fear.
When I finished this book, I just held it in my arms and cried. I strongly feel everyone, teen and adult alike, should read it. It’s obviously a fictional family but the nightmares they endured are true. The death camps, the suffering, it’s all real, and if you, like me, weren’t aware of the horrors the Baltic people went through, I recommend picking this up.
Krasivaya. It means beautiful, but with strength. Unique.