First of all, please do not confuse this spectacular title with that OTHER Shades of Grey. Not that any comparison is even merited, but gray – notice spelling difference – hit shelves more than a year before Grey (March 2011 vs. April 2012), and gray is indisputably the superior title.
This is one of those unput-downable books you finish and repeatedly ask yourself, ‘why didn’t I know more about this before?’ An estimated 20 million people were murdered during Josef Stalin’s reign during the 1930s to his death in 1953. As author Ruta Sepetys explains, the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia “simply disappeared from maps” in 1941 under Stalin’s occupation, and did not reappear until a half century later. Her connection to this history is highly personal: Sepetys is American, but her father was a Lithuanian refugee, and her grandfather a Lithuanian military officer who was miraculously fortunate enough to escape his homeland through Germany into refugee camps.
More than one-third of the population of these Baltic countries were annihilated. Survivors of the massive deportations who spent 10-15 years in terrifying Siberia finally returned to an occupied homeland where they were treated as criminals. Under constant surveillance by the KGB, mere talk of their tragic experiences meant imprisonment; their silent submission was all but guaranteed. “As a result, the horrors they endured went dormant, a hideous secret shared by millions of people,” Sepetys explains in her “Author’s Note.” In this near-perfect debut novel, she reclaims these heroic voices: “Many of the events and situation I describe in the novel are experiences related to me by survivors and their families.”
Lina is just 15 when her happy, privileged world is shattered in just one night; the Soviet secret police – the NKVD – give Lina, her mother Elena, and her 10-year-old brother Jonas just 20 minutes to pack a suitcase and leave their lives forever. The threesome, separated from Lina’s father Kostas, begin a tortuous journey from their home in Kaunus, Lithuania that will pause for almost a year in a labor camp in Siberia’s Altai Mountains, and eventually settle in a hellish prison in the North Pole.
Amidst the mindless violence and monstrous abuse by the Soviet soldiers, Lina and her family survive on moments of shared humanity, whether among the fellow prisoners, or even with the so-called enemy. Elena’s strength rarely falters, keeping sanity intact for her family and their small group of prisoners, even when nothing around them makes any sense. Lina uses her artistic gifts to briefly draw – on a handkerchief, birch bark, and too-precious paper – herself out of her misery whenever she can, even as she bears witness to the atrocities all around her. Her art will prove to be a precious legacy.
In spite of the utterly inhumane history she exposes, Sepetys manages to imbue Lina’s story with overwhelming hope. She seems always aware of her younger readers, and knows when to suggest rather than sensationalize. Without ever diminishing the suffering, she highlights the tiny details that amount to heroic survival, the unbreakable bonds that keep people alive, and the deep hope that gets them to tomorrow and beyond. Like Markus Zusak‘s phenomenal The Book Thief – another story of a child’s survival amidst brutal tragedy – gray is ultimately an unforgettable, inspiring love story: ” … love is the most powerful army. 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.”
Tidbit: As noted in my earlier post of Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, I (unintentionally) happened to read gray and Snow simultaneously, the former on the page, the latter stuck in the ears. Read together, they make for interesting companion texts in spite of their many differences, but wrenchingly overlapping they certainly turned out to be. Check out both for yourself and do please share your reactions …
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult, Adult