readergirlz is a literacy and social media project for teens, awarded the National Book Foundation's Innovations in Reading Prize. The rgz blog serves as a depot for news and YA reviews from industry professionals and teens. As volunteers return full force to their own YA writing, the organization continues to hold one initiative a year to impact teen literacy. All are welcome to "like" us on Facebook!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Rgz Salon: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, Reviewed by Lyn Miller-Lachmann

Rgz SALON member Lyn Miller-Lachmann has been the Editor-in-Chief of MultiCultural Review; the author of the award-winning multicultural bibliography Our Family, Our Friends, Our World; the editor of Once Upon a Cuento, a collection of short stories by Latino authors; and most recently, the author of Gringolandia, a young adult novel about a refugee family living with the aftermath of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. The book has had multiple print runs and is available for order. (Don't forget to read the fascinating Cover Story for Gringolandia.)

We're honored to have Lyn here as part of the rgz SALON, a feature where top kidlit experts clue us in to the best YA novels they've read recently. Today, she reviews Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys (Philomel):

"YALSA recently announced its shortlist for the William Morris Award honoring the best debut YA novel of the year, and one of the finalists is Ruta Sepetys’s Between Shades of Gray. I agree with the accolade, as this is one of the most fascinating and challenging books that I’ve read in a long time. It recounts a little-known episode in the history of the Second World War, but one close to the author and her family. Her mother was able to escape Lithuania for the United States during the war. Other members of her mother’s family did not, and they became victims of Stalin’s brutality once Soviet forces overran the Baltic nations and eastern Poland in 1939—the same time that Hitler occupied western Poland and most of central Europe as a result of the non-aggression pact between these two despots. Sepetys uses their experience as the foundation of her stunning debut.

"Between Shades of Gray begins in June 1941, when Soviet forces control Lithuania but the threat of a Nazi invasion is growing. Fifteen-year-old Lina Vilkas, her 11-year-old brother, and their mother are deported from their comfortable home in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second-largest city, first to a collective farm in southern Siberia and then to a barren work camp near the North Pole. They are three of several hundred thousand people from Soviet-occupied Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, and Poland sent to Siberia along with millions of others on the even of the Nazi invasion. They have been considered enemies of the state and potential Nazi collaborators because of their wealth and nationalist political views. Lina’s father has already been 'disappeared,' and the rest of the family searches for news of him among the other deportees. On the journey, Lina meets Andrius, a handsome and courageous boy two years older. They are later separated. She witnesses the death of her mother and countless others and finds an outlet for her fear and sorrow through her art, drawing the barren landscape that Sepetys so vividly describes.

"Sepetys’s fictional account reads like a memoir in the style of Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe, which describes a Polish-Jewish family sent to Siberia under similar circumstances. In that sense, it doesn’t have a traditional story arc but rather is a chronicle of the protagonist’s first two years of a twelve-year captivity, with the 'climax' the arrival of a kindly Soviet doctor who treats the ailing internees, teaches them to cure and store fish so they will survive future winters, and helps them connect with an indigenous village nearby. Reflecting the real events, Sepetys leaves unresolved what happens to most of the characters, though she gives the reader a powerful surprise ending. Defying the 'political correctness' of much historical fiction, she also paints an authentic portrait of the Lithuanian characters’ culture and attitudes, including the subconscious anti-Semitism that explains their later collaboration with the Nazis in exterminating over 90 percent of the country’s Jewish population between 1941 and 1944. She does so not directly but through a complex, troubling, and ultimately convincing portrayal of the Bald Man, a Jewish deportee who joins Lina and her family at every stage of their terrible journey." -Lyn Miller-Lachmann