Everyone who finished the 2012 Best of the Best Reading Challenge by reading 25 titles from the 2012 Best of the Best list was invited to create a reader response to one of the books they read. This is one of those responses.
My reaction to Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys can be summed up in one word: Wow! This is truly a powerful book. It is also a book I would probably never have read if not for the Best of the Best Reading Challenge. I normally enjoy historical fiction, but the subject of this book struck me as just too grim and depressing. I was afraid that I would start to really care for the main character, only to have my heart broken by a tragic ending. I was right on one level. This book tells the story of a horrifying tragedy. But it is ultimately about the triumph of the human spirit, about finding hope in the most unlikely places.
Whenever I talk about this book with someone who has read it, we inevitably start to gush about how amazing it is. Many of us know, in general terms, about the abuses in the Soviet Union under Stalin and dissidents being sent to Siberia. But when Sepetys tells the story of Lina and her family, she brings the history to life and makes it personal. I couldn’t help but begin to care deeply about Lina. She is a believable character, reacting in ways that made perfect sense to me for someone her age.
It would be so easy for a book like this to settle into stereotypes of good and evil. Yet each character is complex. Lina is not entirely a good person. Thrown into terrifying circumstances, she clings to her family and her art while badly wanting to hate and strike out at those she sees as complicit in her pain. She can be self-centered and leaps to conclusions about people around her instead of trying to learn the full story. But she learns that circumstances are not always what they appear to be on the surface. People who seemed to be her enemies turned out to have their own difficult stories and were often victims of a sort themselves. I was moved almost to tears by Lina’s encounter near the end of the book with the guard Kretzky. She tells herself to just steal the wood and go because she wants to keep hating him. However, after hearing his story, she can’t help but reach out to him in sympathy.
Between Shades of Gray sheds light on an often-overlooked historical event, telling the story in very personal, human terms. It is one of those books with the power to have a lasting impact on the reader, and I am grateful that the Challenge prompted me to read it. Do not miss this book!
— Angela Critics