“Davai!” An NKVD officer grabbed Jonas by the shoulders and began to drag him away.
“NO!” screamed Mother.
They were taking Jonas. My beautiful, sweet brother who shooed bugs out of the house instead of stepping on them, who gave his little ruler to splint a crotchety old man’s leg.
“Mama! Lina!” he cried, flailing his arms.
“Stop!” I screamed, tearing after them. Mother grabbed the officer and began speaking in Russian–pure, fluent Russian. He stopped and listened. […]
Mother pulled a bundle of rubles from her pocket and exposed it slightly to the officer. He reached for it and then said something to Mother, motioning with his head. Her hand flew up and ripped the amber pendant right from her neck and pressed it into the NKVD’s hand. He didn’t seem to be satisfied. Mother continued to speak in Russian and pulled a pocket watch from her coat. I knew that watch. It was her father’s and had his name engraved in the soft gold on the back. The officer snatched the watch, let go of Jonas, and started yelling at the people next to us.
Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch. (26-27)
Fifteen-year-old Lina, her younger brother Jonas, and her mother are violently taken from their home in the middle of the night by the Soviet police. Being deported to who knows where, it’s a constant struggle to survive as they travel by train car to first one labor camp and then another. Forced to do back-breaking work in deplorable conditions with little food or medical care, Lina spends her days alternatingly fearing the worst and hoping for the best. But when you’re faced with insurmountable odds, is there really any difference between hoping for life or begging for death?
It really amazes me the coincidences that happen when no one is aware of them. The fact that this book and Breaking Stalin’s Nose could both be about Stalin’s rule during World War II, events that most Americans including myself have very little knowledge of AND be published within six months of each other is amazing enough in my mind. To have them both be recognized by the various awards committees is even more remarkable, with Breaking Stalin’s Nose receiving a Newbery Honor and Between Shades of Gray receiving a host of recognition, including nominations for the Cybils Award for Young Adult Fiction, the William C. Morris YA Debut Award and the ALA Teens’ Top Ten list. I feel like I should go hunting for more books about Stalin’s regime! The beauty of this coincidence that with these two books you have perspectives from both sides of how life was like from authors who both have personal connections to that time in history. The fear that Sasha suffers from in Breaking Stalin’s Nose is almost incomparable to what Lina and her family go through in Between Shades of Gray, although it did slightly prepare me for what I would find in Between Shades of Gray.
Ruta Sepetys stresses at the end of her book that to this day, seventy years later, still no one talks about the horrors that happened at the beginning of the war. Librarians, teachers, military professionals, lawyers, and doctors along with their families were just some of the professions that were rounded up, shoved onto trains, and forced to hard labor in the camps for years. As a librarian, knowing about this left me thinking if I would have survived the journey, and the answer would have most likely been no. They took the educated, the informed, and the influential, and reduced them to scavengers, sickly citizens, forcing them to sign documents that marked them as criminals and labeling the train car they rode on as carrying prostitutes and thieves to further demean their existence.
There were so many scenes in this book of the torture that these people endured that stand out to me so vividly even after finishing the last page and closing the cover. I can’t lock those descriptions away and put them on the shelf as easily as I can close the book and put it away. From being threatened with being buried alive to suffering from lice, scurvy, and other diseases to picking up and eating the trash that is pelted at you just so you have something to eat that night, to watching a new mother be shot for mourning the death of her new-born, which suffered the irrevocable fate of having been born to someone on the “list”. The United States, as far as I’m aware of, doesn’t share the histories of atrocities that other countries do, as even slaves back in the 1700s were taken care of to some extent because they had value. These people were seen as worthless by the NKVD and made to feel worthless by any means necessary.
Sepeyts spares nothing and no one when portraying the hardships, but the book is also filled with instances of caring and the small actions that helped Lina, her brother, and everyone around her maintain a shred of hope and decency. When asked to undress for the first time in the open air for showers, the women avert their eyes and turn around so as to give the boys some modicum of privacy. Jonas gives his school ruler as an ineffective splint for a crotchety and pessimistic man who broke his leg in a failed suicide attempt. The prisoners share what little knowledge, food, and warmth they have with each other because they recognize that sometimes the littlest things could mean the difference between hope and despair, between another day above ground or the first of many below.
Emily Klein narrates the book, and the part she excels is Lina’s varied feelings and the clipped and impatient tones of the NKVD officers, many times shouting just one hated word: “Davai!” While her differentiation between characters is only really noticeable with Lina, Jonas, and one or two others, the emotion is raw and palatable and certainly is a welcome addition to the experience. However, you should also take a look at the map included in the printed text, which gives a visual of how far Lina, her family, and the rest of the captives had to travel over the course of more than a year.
Ruta Sepetys summarizes the conflict succinctly in the video on the book’s website. She also recently wrote a piece for NPR, explaining how her book is frequently confused with that “other shades of gray book” but that’s she’s embracing the opportunity to educate people who wouldn’t normally have been interested and claims the “mix-up is a victory.” It’s a powerful novel, both informative and inspirational in the same way that Anne Frank’s diary was for the Jewish Holocaust, and I highly recommend not only for book groups and school reading, but for individual reading as well.