LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2011 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 57, No.3 - Fall 2011
Editor of this issue: M. G. Slavenas
Ruta Sepetys. Between Shades of Gray. New York: Philomel, 2011.
Much has been written in the Lithuanian press about Ruta Sepetys’s novel Between Shades of Gray, a fictional account for young adults about the deportations to Siberia of thousands of people from the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and the book’s incredible success. In April of this year, Sepetys came to the Lithuanian World Center in Lemont, Illinois, for a book signing and a talk about her accomplishment.
In discussions of World War II, Balts have often, with disappointment and anger, questioned why so little attention is paid to the crimes that Stalin committed against the Baltic nations and, for that matter, all of Eastern Europe. Maybe the time has finally come. Maybe what was needed was someone to present these historical events in an interesting way. Indeed, the book appeared on the New York Times Children’s Chapter Books Bestseller List for four weeks. Major US newspapers such as the Washington Post, the LA Times, and the Wall Street Journal reviewed it favorably. The book has been scheduled for publication in twenty-six countries and has already appeared in the UK, Italy, Lithuania, Taiwan, Germany, the Netherlands, Finland and Slovakia.
Sepetys is energetic, warm, sincere and engaging. She immediately joked about how difficult it is to have such a Lithuanian name, yet not speak the language and not have ever participated in the activities of the Lithuanian community. Perhaps this is exactly what helped her to tell this story of deportations, helped to give voice to “those whose voices were extinguished.”
Sepetys’s opening comment, “It is not the book that made the New York Times Bestseller List. Lithuania made the bestseller list,” speaks volumes about the person she is. Her unpretentiousness and ease is captivating and a bit surprising. She stressed many times that “this is a common history–our history.” Almost every Lithuanian attending the event could probably tell a story of their family’s or a loved one’s fate during this period. She urged the attendees to write down these stories because “the ground has been broken.’
Sepetys spoke about how she was initially determined to question the survivors in Lithuania about their experiences and had prepared a well thought-out interview. At first, she could not understand why she was not getting the answers she expected and survivors were hesitant to answer her questions. An associate working with her suggested she invite them to talk about their experiences and just listen. This enabled her to hear, to realize what it must have been like for them, and to understand how it is possible to endure such horrific experiences and yet preserve one’s humanity.
Sepetys also spoke about the “worst decision of her life”– spending twenty-four hours in a former Soviet prison where the frightening experience of a prisoner is recreated. The oppressive environment was felt immediately as the “prisoners” endured the demeaning and cruel, sometimes violent, treatment of the guards and interrogators. She admitted that she very quickly realized that she was a coward – a few rough blows from the guards, and survival became first and foremost in her mind. While this experience was short-lived compared to what the deportees endured, this understanding helped her write a book in which people are not judged, actions are not black or white, and the spectrum of human behaviors is revealed. It also forces the reader to ask himself, “What if...”
It is sometimes simple to condemn others for their actions. However, until we actually find ourselves in extreme situations, we cannot truly know how we would behave and what we would be capable of doing to save ourselves and our families. On the other hand, people who commit horrific acts sometimes show unexpected kindness. Perhaps what is best about this book is that it was not written in anger or bitterness. Rather, the reader feels profound anguish and compassion, as if hearing the plea, “Look what happened to us.”
“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”* There is always hope. On the cover of the book, there is a small bud coming up through snow surrounded by barbed wire. Countless atrocities have been committed in the course of human history against which men were helpless. Fate cannot be chosen or controlled, but it is possible to survive and to live. Even love is possible.
*Leonard Cohen, “Anthem,” 1992.
Shades of Gray is written for teen and young adult readers in impeccable style. Adult readers will also find the book gripping. The chapters are short; flashbacks are in italics. The author succeeds in telling a story that does not leave the reader indifferent. The topic and events are horrifying. We naturally turn away from disturbing experiences, but Sepetys skillfully uses language and precisely chooses words that draw the reader in. Readers feel the pain of the characters’ experiences, and their fate matters to them. Many will wipe away tears.
It is the age of electronics and the e-reader. The e-reader is more practical to carry than a book. The font can be enlarged to a comfortable size. The built-in dictionary is useful. However the e-book will never replace a real book. Ruta Sepetys’s Shades of Gray is everything a real book should be. It is inviting, pleasing to pick up, hold and turn the pages. The characters matter because they are familiar. Each one may be one of us. Finally, this heart-wrenching story can be heard and remembered.