Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys – Reviewed by Nancy Wahl

Title: Between Shades of Gray

Author:  Ruta Sepetys

Genre:  Historical Fiction/YA Fiction

Publisher: Philomel Books

As I begin this story, I expect much. This highly recommended novel belongs to my favorite genre and covers a period of time that never leaves my heart.  I comfortably settle in to my favorite reading spot, and as I begin to read, I meet a living, breathing character who immediately grips me and leads me into her beautifully telling tale of the strength of the human spirit.

“They took me in my nightgown.”


And so it begins for 15-year-old Lina, her brother, and her mother as the safe haven of home shatters with the new reality of inhumane cruelty. Though sometimes painful to read, this clamant story takes readers from a warm, cozy home in Lithuania in 1941 into a world of filth and cold cruelty. Lina and her family live through atrocities that seem unimaginable to them as they are forced by Stalin to leave all that they have ever known.  Throughout this crippling change in their young lives, Lina and her brother survive because their mother’s unflagging spirit, compassion and humanity weave a thread of hope throughout every ordeal and make atrocity somehow survivable.


“ ‘You’re going to be fine,’ said Mother, stroking the woman’s filthy hair. ‘We’re all going to be fine. We mustn’t lose our senses. It’s going to be all right. Really.’ “


Sepetys takes characters and readers from Lithuania to Siberia in descriptive detail that captures every sense and presents life in compelling form.  Rarely do I wrestle for words to describe writing, but words that do justice to what I feel as I read elude me.  Diction, style and emotion combine to create the characters who become the essence of the novel. If I had only one word, I would use breathtaking.

“Was it harder to die, or harder to be the one who survived? I was sixteen, an orphan in Siberia, but I knew.  It was the one thing I never questioned. I wanted to live. I wanted to see my brother grow up. I wanted to see Joana. I wanted to smell the lily of the valley on the breeze beneath my window. I wanted to paint in the fields. I wanted to see Andrius with my drawings. There were only two possible outcomes in Siberia.  Success meant survival. Failure meant death. I wanted life. I wanted to survive.”


History remains the ultimate teacher, and we all have much to learn from the strength and resilience of the millions of people who suffered at the hands of Stalin and his minions. Sepetys tells a beautiful story that needs to be heard and remembered. Let Lina lead you through her tale; you will not regret it, and you will not emerge unchanged.

Nancy Wahl teaches 8th grade English in Texas. She loves sharing her passion for reading and writing with her students, and can be found spending any spare moment with family and friends.