We are well shut of the twentieth century, I think. That was the first thing that crossed my mind as I closed Between Shades of Gray at about 1:30 in the morning last night. Good god. This is historical fiction that grabs you by the throat.
Where are we? We are in Lithuania in June of 1941. Stalin has annexed the country and part of his strategy for integrating it seamlessly into the Soviet Union is to round up anyone who might object and send them to Siberia.
Who are we? Fifteen-year-old Lina, upper middle class, a gifted artist, with a ten-year-old brother and a beautiful mother. Papa, a university administrator, has already disappeared when soldiers pound on the door and throw Lina's family into a truck.
The narrative of boxcar - camp - humiliation - starvation - terror will be familiar to anyone who has read a Holocaust memoir or novel. Doesn't make it any less gripping or horrific. I'm just saving space here. What may not be familiar to most readers are the players. Instead of Hitler and the SS we have Stalin and the NKVD (the KGB's precursor)... instead of Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals, Lina's fellow prisoners are the teachers, lawyers, and military of the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia). And instead of outright exterminating the people whom he wanted out of the way, Stalin's plan was to work them until they died.
Lina digs graves using a garden trowel; she harvests beets using a hoe without a handle, carries building supplies and firewood, often in 12-hour work shifts. She learns to pilfer and to steal, to eat garbage, to hide her thoughts and words. Her companions die of disease, are killed by soldiers, go mad.
There are a few glimmers of light shining through this shocking story - the dignity and generosity of Lina's mother Elena, a handsome boy named Andrius, Lina's drawings, and flashbacks to the family's happy life before Stalin. I would love an illustrated version of this book - Lina describes not only her own work, but also paintings by other artists that inspire her, notably Edvard Munch.
I would recommend this book to a wide, wide readership. Short chapters and a writing style that hits a nice balance between descriptive and economical makes me think it will fly as a middle school class read, perhaps grouped with The Cat with the Yellow Star: Coming of Age in Terezin and Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference. All three of these books feature young people maintaining their identities despite the worst of situations.
My oldest son was born in 2001 and is therefore not a product of that century that saw millions of civilians murdered in the name of nationalism, or progress, or stability - millions of innocent human beings treated like freight. Livestock. Vermin. If he and his classmates all over the world all read books like Between Shades of Gray, can the twenty-first century be free of wholesale inhumanity?
Between Shades of Gray is up against Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition in the first round of SLJ's Battle of the Books this year. Oh, I sure loved Bootleg: I learned more about Prohibition, women's suffrage, Al Capone, Henry Ford, and NASCAR (believe it or not) in those 160 pages than I did in some 20 years of schooling, and I enjoyed every page... but I think this round will go to Lina and her compatriots.