Between Shades of Gray: A Story of Struggles and Hope

Between Shades of Gray: A Story of Struggles and Hope

Gabby Landry '18, Editor-in-Chief

The horrors of World War II extended from the lives of ordinary citizens on the home front to the battlefields of Europe, to the Nazi death camps.  Yet one often forgotten group that suffered tremendously is the group of Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.  In the novel Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys documents the life of a fictional 15-year-old Lithuanian girl named Lina Vilkas and her family as the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) forcefully takes them from their home and sends them on a terrifying journey to Siberia as slaves.  Based on the true stories of Baltic citizens, Between Shades of Gray is a detailed, riveting, and thought-provoking story of the terrors that the Baltic people faced during WWII under Stalin.


In 1939, the Soviet Union occupied Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and annexed them as part of the USSR.  Shortly thereafter, the Kremlin (the Soviet government) drafted lists of people considered anti-Soviet and would soon be murdered, sent to prison, or deported into slavery in Siberia.  


The lists grew, full of doctors, lawyers, teachers, military servicemen, writers, business owners, musicians, artists, and even librarians—all considered enemies of the Soviet Union.  The first deportation took place on June 14, 1941.  Some of the targeted people escaped through Germany into refugee camps.  Those who did not were deported and imprisoned, and suffered unspeakable horrors.  Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives in Stalin’s so-called “ethnic cleanse” of the Baltic region.  Meanwhile, the Soviets ravaged their countries, burning their libraries and destroying their churches.


In the novel, Lina, her mother, and her brother spend over a year traveling through Lithuania and Belarus, then across the Ural Mountains into Russia, then through Siberia and across the Arctic Circle.  Lina and her family, along with the other Lithuanians with them, endure the conditions of a harsh Russian winter, little food, and long hours of manual labor.  Yet Lina seeks comfort in her love of drawing.  Throughout the journey, she documents her experiences in drawings and writings in her drawing pad, on pieces of tree bark, and in the margins of books.


Through Lina’s young and fast-maturing perspective, Ruta Sepetys captures the largely untold story of the Baltic people during Stalin’s reign.  Literally caught between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania disappeared from the maps as the USSR swallowed them whole.  Between Shades of Gray is a story of monumental struggles, but also of the extraordinary courage, breaking the silence surrounding the experiences of the Baltic people during WWII.