Uncovering Forgotten History through Fiction: Between Shades of Gray

I recently finished reading Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, a teen historical fiction novel.  Thus far I’ve not dedicated more than a paragraph to a particular book.  However, today that changes.  This multi-award winning novel should be a required read for everyone.

Set against the backdrop of World War II, the story chronicles the life of the fictional Lina Vilkas.  The novel begins in Lithuania prior to its occupation by the Russians, and weeks later, the Germans.  We follow Lina, her brother (Jonas), and mother (Elena) as they are deported from their home, herded into cattle cars, and taken to Siberia.  Once there they face many fears and hardships in labor camps.  Throughout the stories of the main people they encounter are weaved in, especially that of Andrius Arvydas.

There are many reasons I think this novel should be widely read.  First, it tells a story oft forgot in our world’s history.  I had always know that many Lithuanians left their country on the eve of World War II or during its early years, most for Germany.  This included one of my own family members by marriage; he and his mother left Lithuania for Germany before finding a sponsor in the United States.  My second cousin’s husband was but a child at the time, but when he told me his story the fear from those days still showed.  However, I never knew why.  This novel answered the question.  Like Russian Jews, many educated Lithuanians would become part of the over 20 million people Stalin had exterminated during his reign.  Those that survived lived in deplorable conditions.  These events were overshadowed by World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War and are just within the last couple decades becoming known to the west.  The novel brings the history to life in a way reading non-fiction just cannot accomplish–by adding the thoughts and feelings someone trapped in the conditions might have had.  This leads to my second reason.

Cover Image; From and Linked to Wikipedia.

Cover Image; From and Linked to Wikipedia.

Sepetys painstakingly researched the novel, conducting many interviews with those that lived through the events.  As the author interview in the back of the novel stated, she twice traveled to Lithuania to interview the unfortunate souls who live through these events.  Survivors shared their stories, experiences, and feelings.  Sepetys took these findings and wove them in to her characters.  Thus while the characters were fictionalized, their experiences were true stories of others.  While I have not read any historical works on the deportations of the Lithuanians and others Baltic State citizens and labor camps, I have widely read about what the Jewish people of Europe went through during the same era (including for a college-level course on the Holocaust).  The similarities are haunting.  While those from the Baltic States were deported as political prisoners instead of for their faith, they were treated no different.  If anything, as the next paragraph will tell, their conditions may have been worse.

Third, the novel provided an accurate portrayal of deportations and life in labor camps.  Just like with the Jews of Europe, Lina and her family were rounded up without warning and taken from their homes with only essentials in their suitcases.  The pattern continued when they are herded away in trucks to train stations and loaded into over packed, dark cattle cars.  The exception to the pattern is that, unlike the Jews, they were able to keep their luggage.  Once in the labor camps, Lina and her family were forced to conduct hard labor under the guard of the NKVB, the precursor to the KGB.  They worked long hours for wages of 300 grams of bread (about two or three slices of sandwich bread).  At night they returned to shacks and slept on the ground.  They frequently had no defense against the cold or ways to cook food.  Ragged clothing would not be replaced.  And the guards could shoot them at will.  For those in Nazi labor camps (these are not the same as the death/extermination camps), while they may not have gotten more bread, they would be provided with soups and bunk-filled barracks.  That fact coupled with the less brutal weather (Siberia is known for extreme winter weather and bitter cold unknown outside of the Arctic), may have made conditions a bit more livable for the European Jews.  In the long run, regardless of conditions, the outcome would be the same: many died under these harsh conditions and few lived to see freedom.

Lastly, the novel provides snapshots of Stalinism.  Stalinism is not to be confused with communism or Marxism.  I learned this in my many political philosophy courses.  Communism and Marxism ideals call for a state controlled economy and equal sharing of goods, as all would be considered public.  Plus, since all “lived in harmony” there would be no need for government or a class system.  This type of state has yet to exist, as every time someone claimed to implement its ideals, the results were warped too far to be recognized by Marx himself (Lenin is to thank for this, as his interpretation of communism has become the most known).  Stalinism took everything too far.  The state controlled the economy, but goods were distributed unfairly with political and military leaders reaping the majority.  Government would become too strong instead of disappearing; in fact, it would become just as totalitarian as Germany under Hitler or Italy under Mussolini.  Citizens would live in fear and have their lives dictated by the government, including their education and vocation.  In Between Shades of Gray we see hints of this in how the soldiers always had more than enough food and treated other Russian nationals as second-class citizens and in how the Russian nationals that lived within the first labor camp treated the Lithuanians.

For these reasons, I think this book should be widely read.  It helps readers to learn forgotten history; gain a greater understanding of the conditions faced by not only deported Baltics, but also deported Jews; and to understand the Soviet Union’s hold over its people.  These are events in our world’s history we must learn about, least we forget and they are repeated.  It’s like the old adage, “if we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.”

If you would like to read more about the Holocaust conditions I am comparing Between Shades of Gray to, here’s my list of recommended books:

To better understand the political ideology I mentioned, here are some recommendations:

Thoughts on the subject?  Do you think you’ll decide to read Between Shades of Gray?

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