Friday, June 08, 2012

282 (2012 #27). Between Shades of Gray

by Ruta Sepetys

I REALLY wanted to like this book.  The story is one that needs to be told - many people don't know it.  More than 130,000 Lithuanians (at least 70 percent of them women and children) were sent to Siberia, the Arctic Circle or central Asia by the Soviets under Stalin. By the time the deportations ended with Stalin's death in 1953, some 30,000 Lithuanians had died, and another 50,000 never returned to their homeland.  Indeed, Lithuania did not reappear as a country for 50 years, in 1991.

My maternal great-grandparents were Lithuanian immigrants (although they arrived in this country in 1900 and earlier, and had both passed away before these deportations began), and I've recently made contact with a Lithuanian relative, so I was particularly interested in this book.  Author Ruta Sepetys is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, and made trips to the homeland as part of her research.  The book was a finalist for the William C. Morris Young Adult Debut Award this year, won the 2012 Golden Kite Award for Fiction, and was on a number of other recommended reading lists and award shortlists.

So why didn't I like this book?  It's Sepetys' first novel, and it shows.  The reader is plunged right into the action, with so little back story, that it is hard to care about the characters.  The narrator is fifteen-year-old Lina (thus the young adult classification).  Her father is a university administrator and her mother is a well-educated woman who can speak Russian.  Lina and her younger brother Jonas are deported one evening along with their mother, separated from their father (who they briefly encounter on another train, but do not see again).

The book is written in such a detached manner that I found it hard to feel the cold or the hunger the characters were experiencing.  The time spent on the train and the great distances traveled (6,500 miles!) feel short.  Minor characters come and go (and die), but are developed so little that it is difficult to feel much emotion about them.  The story slogged; it did not compel me to finish it (but I did).  Dialogue is in short, choppy sentences, and unmoving.  Lina mostly comes across as immature.

The book is interspersed with flashbacks to Lina's memories (that do help the reader), and numerous references to her artwork.  Indeed, the artwork is hinted at as a major plot point, but that doesn't seem to come to pass.  If the artwork was so important, it would have been nice to have a few illustrations of it in the book.

The story ends abruptly and unsatisfactorily. You learn a little about what happened to Lina and one major character (at least in 1954), but no one else. If this book wasn't about such an important, rarely-discussed topic, I don't think it would have garnered the attention (and awards) it's received.  It's not THAT good - which is too bad. 

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

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