It's No 50 Shades of Gray, But It Is A Dark and Rare History Lesson

Ruta Sepetys. Between Shades of Gray. Penguin Group, 2011:

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Thinking back, the signs were there- family photos burned in the fireplace."

In Ruta Sepetys’ first novel, she decides to take on a subject that many may not be familiar with; the imprisonment of citizens of Lithuania by Joseph Stalin. The reader follows the main character Lina through her struggle to survive after she is taken from her home and sent across Siberia to work in gulags created by the Russian government. She is separated from her father and through the use of her artistic abilities she attempts to discover if he is still alive. Her younger brother and mother are with her throughout her struggle, and their suffering adds to the melancholy mood of the book.

While the subject of the novel tugs at one’s heartstrings, it also serves the purpose of exposing the atrocities of Stalin’s rule. Many author’s focus on the Holocaust, and the plight of those imprisoned by Russia is overlooked. Sepetys’ story reads more like a historical text rather than a traditional novel, but this does not take away from the reader’s desire to connect with the characters and the plot. Even through her struggle Lina finds herself caught up in a love story with a young boy named Andrius and despite the overpowering misery of Lina’s situation, she still encounters individuals who salvage the good of humanity, during such a dark time. The struggle of the characters is heartbreaking yet inspirational, and the text itself is informative and thought provoking. Between Shades of Gray is a quick read that is sure to captivate the interest of the reader, and help them learn something along the way.

Recommendations for Teachers

Since the novel is historical fiction, and especially considering it is centered around a part of history often overlooked, a brief history lesson would be a good idea, either prior to reading the book for one class hour or intermittently throughout readings. The lesson(s) should include some information about the USSR and the Soviets and the Communist Regime, some information about Joseph Stalin and his relations with Adolf Hitler, a timeline to be paired with the reading lessons, and possibly use of an interactive map to follow the steps the main character Lina and her family and comrades are taken en route to the labor camp they are held at for many years.

The book ideally should be taught in a Middle School classroom, however, depending on the type of socioeconomic setting it might be taught in lower High school grades according to the intense content found in the novel. Some of this content includes violence, torture, mass genocide, sexual assault and mention of prostitution in placement of labor intensive work forced upon the character Andrius's mother. This situation and others should probably be spoken about gravely for a moment in the classroom. Particularly the part where the main character Lina is sexually assaulted by an NKVD officer while she is directed to the communal showers for cleansing and delousing. Though it isn't rape, this sort of inappropriate touching should be emphasized that it is sexual abuse and to be taken seriously. To emphasize this, it should be discussed that if Lina had fought back she would have been murdered in her situation, but in any other situation it is appropriate and right for a person getting unwanted physical attention to fight against it. Many children are sexually abused, so the topic should be taken tenderly, as it is a possible for some students in the classroom to be or to have been victims of sexual abuse.

About Ruta Sepetys
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Ruta Sepetys (pronounced Roota Suh-pettys) was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. She is the youngest of three children born to a Lithuanian father and an American mother - her Lithuanian descent is a source of pride for her. As a child she was immersed in the arts and surrounded by creativity, which drove her toward a career in the arts. She attended Hillsdale College and began studying opera, but later switched to international finance before graduating. After spending time in Paris, France, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music. After fifteen years of living in LA, she moved to Tennessee in order to continue her musical career.

Yet it was in Tennessee that she found the time to write Between Shades of Gray, her first novel. Her writing was inspired by stories her father would tell her about his experiences under Soviet rule in Lithuania and it was supplemented by dozens of interviews with Gulag survivors, historians, psychologists, and government officials. In writing Between Shades of Gray, Sepetys shed many tears and admits that talking about some of the scenes from the novel will make her get misty-eyed yet today. Sepetys is extremely well traveled having visited 42 countries on six different continents. Her love for different cultures and travel drove her to write her second novel, Out of the Easy, a book about historical scandal in New Orleans. Today, Sepetys still lives in Tennessee with her husband and writes both music and novels.

Multimedia (Video or Audio)

Below is an interview with Ruta Sepetys as she explains her inspiration for Between Shades of Gray. In the video, she also details how she researched and gathered the information needed to write this story.

Below is an additional link of a real student review of Between Shades of Gray

Additional Resources:
Below are links to resources for teachers.
  • Ruta Sepetys- This website is the official website for the author. Here you can read about her and other books that she has written.
  • Between Shades of Gray- This is the official website for the book by Ruta Sepetys. The website includes an excerpt and a full discussion guide.
  • Ruta Sepetys Interview- Click here to see an interview manuscript of author Ruta discussing Between Shades of Gray.
  • Lithuanian Diaspora- This website provides more information about the occupation and massacre of Lithuanian people by the Soviet Union.
  • Lithuania: World War II- Click here to read more about the Lithuanian occupations by both Germany and the USSR.
  • Lithuania: The Holocaust Encyclopedia - Click the link to read more about Lithuania before WWII, view maps and photographs as to read through other personal stories.
  • WWII Photographs- Photographs taken in Lithuania before and after WWII, they may help the text come alive for students. Caution: these pictures are graphic and could potentially viewed as inappropriate. Be sure to check them out before showing students!
  • The National WWII Museum- This website contains useful resources for teachers planning on teaching a unit about WWII
  • WWII and Holocaust Resources- This website provides book lists, teaching ideas, lesson plans and other resources for teachers.
  • BBC- Primary History and WWII-Click here for "student friendly" explanations of WWII as well as other teacher resources inlcuding activities, lesson plans and videos.

--Kelli Andrascik, Tracy Radsvick, Paul Westdale, and Peter Walblay

Other reviews include: The Book Thief, and Nothing