Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Some books outgrow their jackets.
They are bigger and stronger than advertised, and can not be contained by genre.
I see young adults reading some books traditionally thought of as adult fiction, and I see adults devouring books marketing for the the younger reader.
For instance, over the past three months, individual 8th grade students have read and book-talked The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand; Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier; The Shining, by Stephen King; A Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Beah, Flags of Our Fathers, by James Bradley, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, among many others. Where and when book and reader meet is a very personal relationship dependent on our tastes, friendships, and exposure.
In this regard, Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys outgrows its compass. While I have a strong affection for historical fiction, this book is bigger than the YA genre and it is perfect for the YA genre just for that reason. Young adults need books like this regardless if its message is delivered in Middle Earth, down the rabbit hole, or in Siberia. This is the book I will book talk to my class after the holiday, and it is the book I hope they will be drawn to read and share.
Sepetys, in a larger sense, tells her story against the backdrop of Stalin's icy grip on the victimized Baltic people during WWII: Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians. Here the protagonist's family (Lina Vilkas) is sent on an arduous journey to die in the frozen wasteland Siberia. The important element is not in who lives or dies, or who is to blame, or who is left for our hate. Rather, the heart of this story is in the strength of humanity--incredibly, I found no hatred for the cruel beasts raking their prejudice and hatred upon the victims. Instead, my energy was drawn to the spirit of the survivors, to the resilience of being human. As one hardship falls after another, I could feel the strength mounting inside Lina--it was subtle, but her actions built the evidence of the undeniable strength forged within people in trying circumstances.
This is the same focus I find so many of my students have upon meeting Anne Frank for the first time. After the initial gusts of "why?" and the horrific Nazi state recedes as a black backdrop--present, but put in its place--my students have always written about Anne's spirit. Instead of walking away from these stories with hatred or fear cradling our hearts, we walk away with a better understanding of the importance of tolerance, culture, and kindness.
Much in Between Shades of Gray can be compared to the hatred and conditions the Jews found in concentration camps--while one human starved in the bitter cold, another fattened in warmth. While the Jews battled dysentery, lice, and meager rations, the Nazis danced with comfort, sipped cognac amid gauzy cigarette smoke, and ate tender beef and puffy pastry with relish. So too the Lithuanians suffered like despised animals looking down the barrels of Russian guns.
I loved Between Shades of Gray because it unravelled a period of history I know very little about. Yet, at the same time, it reminded me of the aspects of humanity that we all know a lot about, and can't ever get enough reminders of: love, hope, perseverance, kindness, faith, memory, family, and compassion. I see the same messages each year when I read and teach The Diary of Anne Frank. I find the same message almost daily in an 8th grade student's essay or entry in a writer's notebook--the beauty of humanity is far stronger than the bitterness of hatred.
I hope my students read Between Shades of Gray for many reasons (the brutality of history, its elegant writing) but I especially hope that its frank reminder to never quit, never let go, and never, ever, give your enemies anything--not even your fear.
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