By Ally Britton-Heitz
Much like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Book Thief, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys is a work of historical fiction that outlines the government-backed tragedies of the World War II era. Yet Sepetys’s novel, while based on main character Lina’s fictional perspective, is rooted in the real-life experiences of the author’s family, evoking a deep emotional connection and thus a reaction to the trauma experienced by so many families in the Baltics. Septeys’s work is ultimately a story of survival, one that resonates deeply with many Eastern Europeans today.
From the moment Septeys begins to depict Lina’s fight for survival, when she was forced to leave her home, she allows each individual who reads her book to understand the weight of fear that hung over the heads of Lithuanians deported during Stalin’s terror. The book depicts a deep sorrow in which the soul of Lina, and the individuals who accompanied her, had been hollowed out, and yet they fought on, unsure of what was to come (Septeys 2011, 72). Uncertainty colored the thoughts of Lina as well as those who had similar experiences to her. Not only did they not know what was to become of them, they were forced to carry the burden of wondering what had happened to their families and friends. This burden was likely pulled into the afterlife with those who had passed; Lina once wondered if those who died on the journey were truly able to move on and find peace in heaven or if they were stuck, searching for their loved ones on the train tracks that had already taken so much from them (Septeys 2011, 112).
Septeys describes in heartwrenching detail the pain and suffering faced by many Lithuanians. She illustrates the resistance demonstrated by these individuals and the ruthless nature with which the totalitarian leaders of the time operated. Throughout the story, Lina is depicted as being anti-Soviet, a sentiment her parents regularly chastise, not for their own feelings but instead out of fear. While Lina’s dissent is fictional, the atrocities committed by both Stalin and Hitler are not. Sepetys’s book is impressive in a number of ways, including how she managed to capture to the perception of those who were subjected to the brutal reign of either Hitler or Stalin. Lina mentions that the actions of the totalitarian leaders seemed like a game, that the two individuals were deciding to take or to give Poland and Lithuania were much like children dividing up toys, an image that perfectly depicts how little thought the leaders gave to the lives they were disturbing (Sepetys 2011, 167). As it was perfectly put by Lina’s father in the story, Europeans were dealing with “two devils who both want[ed] to rule hell” (Sepetys 2011, 168). And yet, despite the truth of how terrible the time was, the book serves to show how resilient Lina and so many Lithuanians were.
I urge anyone who can to read this book and to gain a better understanding of one of the lesser-known tragedies of the Second World War. Not only is it important to recognize the past so that we as individuals can learn from it but it is important to understand the power we hold as individuals, to remain strong during impossible times and to challenge what is wrong in this world.
Ally Britton-Heitz is a first year majoring in Diplomacy and Global Affairs and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.