Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Honoring the Human Spirit

Several writer friends talked for days about a forthcoming book with a strong message. However, although the publiction date had arrived, no one could find the book available for purchase yet. Before I post a review, I always make sure readers can order or pick up a copy at the nearest library or independent bookstore. I kept checking. The book was on order. It was in transit. It arrived! Everything else in my day went on hold so I could read. Here’s a first novel you will want to read, too.

BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY by Ruta Sepetys, Philomel books, 2011.

The first sentence caught me and held on tight. “They took me in my nightgown.”

It’s 1941. This is the brutal Stalin era. 15 year old Lina, her ten year old brother Jonas, and her mother–her father has already been taken away–are given only minutes to pack before the Soviet guards gather them, neighbors, townspeople, some they know and some they don’t, and throw them into a train car meant for cattle and marked for “thieves and prostitutes.” They endure a long, torturous trip from their homes in Lithuania to Siberia where they struggle with hunger, cold, and pure evil displayed daily by their captors.

I was appreciative that the author chose to deliver this story in short chapters. The drama, the human tragedy, the bitterness, the burden of emotion, are all so heavy that a reader needs time to breathe.

The author, whose mother was a Lithuanian refugee, sets out to give voice to a group nearly forgotten in the rush of historical events. Stalin’s reign of terror crushed the Baltic states before the United States joined the allies in WWII. What did we know about these horrible events that occurred before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor? We didn't have nightly newcasts with embedded journalists.

It was a long time before Hitler’s life and influences were chronicled in our books for young people. Now we are learning, in books like Hitler Youth and The Boy Who Dared, both by
Susan Campbell Bartoletti. Her books and others are eye-openers about how youth can be used and abused by tyrants who march in, kill leaders and educated people, eradicate language, overwhelm, intimidate, starve, maim, threaten, kill. Surely, we can learn from this. Can’t we?

Some reviewers are saying this book is for more than kids. It’s their way of saying adults will find this story just as gripping as young adults and older tweens who are avid readers. Each will bring a different level of understanding to the story.

The triumph here is of the human spirit. When the human spirit refuses to become what the brutes have become, there is hope for a future, even if those who so valiantly struggle against the despots die in the attempt. They leave their courage behind as a legacy. They leave others inspired to hold out for another day, and another.

And years later, an author determined to tell their story does so. Brilliantly.

That’s why so many are raving about this book. It has staying power. Its characters will live in your heart of hearts.


  1. My daughter spent a year in Lithuania and I was able to visit her there. We'll both want to read this! Thanks for sharing.


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