Book Review: Between Shades of Gray (Sepetys)

Between Shades of Gray

Author: Ruta Sepetys © 2011

Publisher: SPEAK (Penguin)

Genre: YA Historical Fiction

Subgenre: Holocaust, Military, Europe

Reviewer: Sara

Book received by: Recommended and loaned to me by another busy mom! (But I will be buying my own copy!)

Synopsis (Amazon blurb):

“Fifteen-year-old Lina is a Lithuanian girl living an ordinary life–until Soviet officers invade her home and tear her family apart. Separated from her father and forced onto a crowded train, Lina, her mother, and her young brother make their way to a Siberian work camp, where they are forced to fight for their lives. Lina finds solace in her art, documenting these events by drawing. Risking everything, she imbeds clues in her drawings of their location and secretly passes them along, hoping her drawings will make their way to her father’s prison camp. But will strength, love, and hope be enough for Lina and her family to survive?”


Busy moms (and dads), Between Shades of Gray will slip between your thoughts and the moments of your day in that way of truly great books. Ms. Sepetys grabs a hold of your attention on the first page and maintains an iron-fisted grip until the very end. What amazes me most is that she does so with beautiful prose about horrific events. The book is simultaneously harrowing and heartwarming, haunting and inspiring. Based on the true history of Ms. Sepetys’ family, it’s a story you will not soon forget.

The story is fiction but based on true history not widely discussed or known, relative to the history of central Europe during World War Two. The book has a natural flow, taking the reader along with Lina and her family from their comfortable lives in Lithuania all the way to the North Pole. Along the way, they experience the extremes of human behavior, from the beyond-words depraved actions of Soviet soldiers to the sacrifices that friends and strangers alike will make for their fellow man. The story will keep you from sleeping, first because it’s a darn difficult book to put down and then as you ponder the inevitable moral questions it raises. What would you do if it was your family? What would you do if this was happening to your friends and neighbors? Would you resist, or keep silent and hope that doing so would protect you and your family?

A level of tension is maintained through the book, from the moment Lina and her family are removed from their home. The only time I noted a disruption in the tension was for the flashbacks to their pre-invasion lives. Though the details were important for grounding the reader in history of actual events and fictional ones, the persistent appearance of flashbacks, and their physical separation from the rest of the prose were the details of the book I most disliked, and found distracting. They are the reason I did not give the book five “Running Moms,” but four and a half.

The flashbacks aside, Ms. Sepetys has developed her characters and story to the point that they’re almost tangible, and it seems harder to reconcile that they did not exist. By the end of the book, I would have believed this was not a historical fiction by someone a full generation removed from the events, but the memoir of a survivor. This is a credit to Ms. Sepetys’ research of the era and recording of stories from those who were survivors. She weaves together fact and fiction into a story that will captivate young and old readers alike. I read this book in six days, which I am almost never able to do with my current schedule. The pages of Between Shades of Gray flew by and I found myself unable to resist turning the page and starting the next chapter. With this recommendation, I will end my review: Buy a copy of this excellent book. Plan to carve out some time in your day wherever you can. Read it yourself, read it with your kids and share it with others. You won’t regret the time or money you invest in this book!

Featured image: Paperback book cover
Design by: Semadar Megged


Have you read Between Shades of Gray? What was your favorite part? How did you feel about the flashbacks? Was this history with which you were familiar, or was it new to you in reading this story?

Is Between Shades of Gray on your “to-read” shelf? Have you read other books by Ruta Sepetys? Or similar YA historical fictions books you would recommend? Please share in the comments, I’m always on the lookout for a good YA and/or HF story!

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