Surviving in the face of terror
At a time when teen fiction is dominated by vampires, werewolves and time travel, first-time author Ruta Sepetys has written a novel whose horrors are all too real.
Exposing the agonies endured by victims of Josef Stalin’s regime, Between Shades of Gray grips readers from the first page with its against-the-odds survival story. Teenager Lina and her family are forced by the Soviet secret police to leave their home in Lithuania in 1941 and travel in a miserable, crammed train car to labor camps in Siberia, on the verge of starvation. They eventually end up north of the Arctic Circle, where they endure hardships so extreme that readers will be shocked to learn this novel is rooted in historical events.
During an interview with BookPage, Sepetys explains that her connection to this atrocity is personal. Her grandfather was an officer in the Lithuanian army. He was on execution lists when the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania in 1939, so he and his wife and son fled to Austria, then Germany, and eventually settled in America. The family members they left behind were deported to work camps and imprisoned.
As Sepetys writes in her author’s note, Stalin was responsible for more than 20 million deaths—including more than a third of the population of Lithuania. But the story of the Baltic deportations is not a well-known part of history. During our conversation, Sepetys explains that, after World War II, people living in Soviet-occupied countries could not speak about Soviet crimes for fear of being punished.
“It’s as if the voice of an entire generation was swallowed,” Sepetys says. “The story sort of went dark and now the people that still have ties to it are in their late 80s. A whisper is left and we’re just about to lose it.”
On her first trip to Lithuania, as an adult, Sepetys met family members and asked to see old pictures. They had to tell her that they’d burned the photos when her grandfather fled—they couldn’t let anyone know they were related.
When she learned of this tragic history, Sepetys saw it as her responsibility to share the story with the world, and tell it as accurately as possible.
“My freedom and everything I have has cost me theirs. My freedom, in the U.S., because my father left, had cost them their freedom. And that’s very heavy, but it made me even more determined that I was going to do this.”
Her family warned that “the world just isn’t interested in this story,” but Sepetys refused to accept that advice. As it turns out, she was right. At the time of our interview, there had been 22 foreign sales of Between Shades of Gray, including one in Lithuania. “This is not about me at all; this is about their story and honoring the people and their experience,” she says.
Though she wanted to share Lithuania’s history, it was important that it be wrapped in fiction. When Sepetys talked to people about their experience during the Soviet occupation, many of her interview subjects had a condition.
“So many people told me, I’ll tell you what happened but you have to promise not to use my name. They were so terrified. Fifty years had passed but the pain was still so raw,” she says. “Fifty years had passed but their hands were still shaking when they spoke.”
Sepetys honored their wishes by drawing on their experiences to create memorable characters. The two who will probably stick with teen readers the most are Lina, the 15-year-old main character, and Andrius, a boy she meets on the long, harrowing train ride to Siberia and with whom she shares a budding romance. The plot centers on the remarkable survival story of Lina and her family as they are forced to travel to different labor camps in extreme conditions—including a camp that is literally at the North Pole.
Although Between Shades of Gray is Sepetys’ debut novel, she is no stranger to the creative process. She has worked in the music business for 20 years, currently as the owner of an artist management company based in Nashville. Besides her day job, she is hard at work on her second book—the story of a murder set in 1950s-era New Orleans.
Sepetys feels that she has found a home with historical fiction. “History holds secrets, and around every corner there is some little-known story,” she says. “Through studying mistakes from the past, hopefully we can learn from our mistakes and create hope for a more just future.”