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Book review: An untold story of Lithuanian survival in 'Between Shades of Gray'

By Brooke Porter

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, April 7 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

"BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY," by Ruta Sepetys, Speak, $8.99, 350 pages (f)

The Jewish Holocaust. Adolf Hitler's "ethnic cleansing." Forced labor camps and millions dead. A universally-known, horrific time in history.

Lithuania and surrounding Baltic States disappear from maps. Josef Stalin kills millions. Unnecessary deportation and inhumane living conditions. How much is known about this part of history?

"Between Shades of Gray" broke the silence behind Stalin's atrocious reign through the eyes of a 15-year-old aspiring artist. This heart-wrenching historical fiction, which has recently been released in paperback, exposed the horrendous circumstances for millions of Lithuanians. The Baltic States disappeared from the maps from 1941 to 1990; therefore, little is known about the countries that endured torture and starvation.

Lina Vilkas is a talented young woman preparing for an exceptional art camp over the summer. She lives with her parents and younger brother Jonas before being ripped unexpectedly from their Lithuanian home by the NKVD, Soviet Union secret police. Lina, Jonas and mother Elena travel thousands of miles to the North Pole. Along the way many die, some lose their minds, but several prevail through sheer faith.

Author Ruta Sepetys interviewed survivors, using their real experiences of forced labor camps and prison to bring immense value and feeling to the book. One example is when Lina escapes the cattle car on a stop to Siberia to search for her father, possibly in a nearby train. Surprisingly, she finds her father, Kostas, and through an unsanitary toilet hole in the base of the car, her father shoves socks, jackets and ham into her trembling hands. And just when it seems to good to be true, her father reaches down and hands Lina his wedding ring.

"Lina, take this and give it to your mother," he tells her. "Tell her it's okay to sell it, if she has to."

This story is one of many in "Between Shades of Gray" that will expose the unfathomable life these people lived, and how their will to not give up was what kept them alive. Knowing these weren't just fictional stories is shocking and incredibly hopeful.

From Kaunas, Lithuania to Trofimivsk, North Pole, and over-packed cattle cars with failing bodies to gualgs made from driftwood, Lina's family relied on faith and love to survive.

In the beginning, Lina's mother Elena anxiously awaits possible deportation late one evening. Elena meticulously sews her wedding gifts and fine jewelry to the lining of her coat in hopes to bribe the NKVD for the sake of their lives.

"Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother's was worth a pocket watch."

Sepetys is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee and spent several years researching the genocide in the Baltic States. She learned a great deal about her own family history while in Lithuania. "I was not aware of the deportations until I went to Lithuania and met with relatives for the first time. I was shocked by their stories."

Sepetys wrote this story with the sole intent of exposure. "Many people aren't familiar with this part of history. I wanted to write a story that explained what happened in the Baltics and also bring attention to the crimes of Stalin," said Sepetys.

This young adult novel is raw and fit for more than just teens. A budding love story, tragic deaths, illegal acts of kindness from the enemy and magnificent survival stories will inspire and inform anyone who reads it. The book includes flashbacks to Lina's life in Lithuania, as well as maps and timelines in the first few pages. The book ends with a moving epilogue and facts from Sepety's personal Lithuanian history and experiences.

if you go ...

What: Ruta Sepetys book signing

When: Thursday, April 12, 7 p.m.

Where: The King's English, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City

Web: kingsenglish.com

'Between Shades of Gray' by Ruta Sepetys

Ruta Sepetys discusses her book "Between Shades of Gray," detailing her sources, inspiration, untold facts and stories of Lithuanian survival in a forgotten holocaust.

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