Author Review: Ruta Sepetys

It’s not very often that you find a book you can get completely lost in — one that absorbs you into the storyline, keeps you turning pages while you’re completely unaware that five hours have passed. It’s even less often that you find three books with that same, magnificent quality — by the same author. We (Kasey and Catherine), both fervent readers, present the only literary masterpiece that we both agree on: Ruta Sepetys’s historical fiction.  

Three of the four books Sepetys has released (each of which Catherine has read approximately 17 times, and Kasey slightly less — she got a late start) are Between Shades of Grey, set during the Soviet invasion of Lithuania in 1941, Salt to the Sea, about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustoff (the greatest maritime disaster in history), and The Fountains of Silence, set in Spain under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Each of these historical fiction books explores time periods and events that are under-represented in the historical fiction genre, and paint such vivid pictures that we were unable to put them down. These books deal with really heavy topics and explore some horrific events of our world’s past, and Ruta Sepetys so elegantly educates her readers on the real historical facts while still effectively drawing them into a story and her characters. 

There are three factors that enable Ruta Sepetys to write bestselling books over and over again: her vivid world-building, her developed character arcs, and her mounted climaxes. Sepetys integrates such detail and description about the time period into her storyline that it’s hard to remember that the book in question is set during a real-life event. The observations her characters make, and the way they react and respond to events and their surroundings, gives you so much insight into the human experience and what was happening during that time period, yet Sepetys’s books are far from just a history lesson. Every single one of her characters and their development is on purpose; they all have arcs, and none of them act as filler characters. People have stories and lives outside the perspective of the main character. This type of vivid authenticity makes readers so attached to the characters, and leaves them begging to read more once the story is over. Read: why we can’t stop talking about these books.

Between Shades of Grey

“Whether love of friend, love of country, love of God, or even love of enemy — love reveals to us the truly miraculous nature of the human spirit.” 

“You stand for what is right Lina — without the expectation of gratitude or reward.”

Between Shades of Grey follows a fifteen year old artist named Lina Vilkas and her family. In 1941, Russia (formerly the USSR) invaded Lithuania (her home country) and deported thousands of people to Siberian labor camps, the Vilkas family among them. Separated from her father, Lina strives to survive the horrific cruelty she and her family endure. During her hardships, Lina meets numerous people who help her hold onto herself and survive. She uses her art to tell her story, which she hopes to someday share with the world. In such darkness, this novel illustrates moments of joy that show how people, even in the most horrible conditions, can thrive by holding onto each other. Kasey felt that this book, more than any other that she’s read, forced her to consider her own privilege, and to feel — almost personally — the horrors that humans inflicted on other humans, other families, during the war. 

Salt to the Sea

“War is catastrophe. It breaks families into irretrievable pieces. But those who are gone are not necessarily lost.” 

Salt to the Sea is the ‘sister’ novel of Between Shades of Grey and follows the story of Lina’s cousin Joana, among others. Joana (referenced a few times by Lina in Between Shades of Grey) escaped from Lithuania to Prussia before the Russians invaded. When this book picks up, she is travelling on foot with a caravan of people fleeing from the Soviets, while simultaneously heading straight for the Nazis. This story is told in the perspectives of four different people who each have their own independent plot line, but whose stories intertwine with each other as well. The secrets, shame, fear, guilt and fate of these five characters guide their quest for refuge and shape the novel with a beautiful blend of emotion and action.

While Salt to the Sea exists in the same world as Between Shades of Grey, the two can be read independently from each other. Salt is Kasey’s favorite of the three; she’s obsessed with the symbolism and underlying themes. One quote in this book (not the above) really stuck with Catherine: “I wept because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.” It promptly shifted her perspective on how grateful she is for everything she has. This novel illustrates the destructive power of war through vivid descriptions and word-building, striking Catherine so deeply because she felt as if she were there, walking alongside Joana and Florian. 

The Fountains of Silence

“Sometimes the truth is dangerous… But we should search for it nonetheless.”

Sepetys’s most recent novel, The Fountains of Silence, tracks a teenage American photographer named Daniel Matheson in Madrid during the Franco dictatorship. Daniel meets Ana, a maid at his hotel, and their collective photographs, family obstacles, and chilling observations weave together to uncover a dark national secret. Similar to her other two novels, Sepetys begins Fountains with a stream of plot lines that are all seemingly independent of each other and yet tie together phenomenally by the end.  

This one reads almost like a mystery; and, though the conclusion is drawn out, the story mounts and weaves together so fluidly that you won’t put it down. Santa brought Catherine this book last Christmas, and she spent the entirety of Christmas day reading it, cover to cover. As she read, she developed a deep attachment to Daniel and felt almost obligated to find out what happened next. Soon after, Catherine shoved the book into Kasey’s hands, and she finished it on a lengthy bus ride to DC — fending off questions from Catherine (who was sitting next to her) the whole time; both collectively squealed when she finished. 

Sepetys researches extensively for each novel — she fills her acknowledgements and appendices with gratitude for the personal interviews, museums, and archival collections that she clearly poured over to get the stories right. Even though the characters themselves are fiction, each setting and general character experience is very much real. Kasey loves Sepetys’s writing style, and feels that she can’t genuinely do it justice in this article, but she’s going to try anyway. Sepetys will sometimes spread a singular event across each character perspective to develop the storyline. In The Fountains of Silence, each character goes to confession, and this seemingly trivial event uncovers bits of personal guilt and shame that pulls at the story’s thread and timidly unravels the characters’ secrets. Catherine could not possibly choose a favorite of the three books. She loves how Sepetys reveals insights into human nature by weaving lessons and wisdom into the fabric of each of her novels. Each book reads like a classic — they reveal so many nuggets of truth about war and the human spirit that Kasey is not ashamed to admit she has annotated each book multiple times. 

Needless to say, we’re obsessed (and have been for a while). Picture it: two friends strained by their endless arguments about their literature preferences finally stumble upon a writer who checks all the boxes. Sepetys’s novels are captivating, personal, and authentic —  perfect for any reader looking for their next literary soulmate. 

Kasey Corra ‘22, Co-Assistant Editor in Chief & Catherine Olohan ‘22, Copy Editor