I read Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys the weekend after it was released on March 22nd (the narrator’s birthday, coincidentally), but it’s taken some time to formulate my opinion. I postponed judgment until I could read two other titles off my list, namely The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom  and The Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller. After doing so I have come to the conclusion that Between Shades of Gray is a fitting title for this YA novel about a family of Lithuanians who were sent to a labor camp in Siberia. Sepetys sheds light on an under-reported episode of Stalin’s Terror without delving so deep into the darkness that it would overwhelm her audience. The main character was not overwhelmed by the unwarranted rigors she was forced to face, but the characters were overwhelmed by the rigorous storyline, which forced them to become role players.

Sepetys based her first novel on the actual experiences of family members who were deported from their homes in Lithuania, whereas Corrie ten Boom wrote of her own internment in a German labor camp in The Hiding Place. In both cases their families were punished for assisting persecuted members of society to escape an invading force. Like Lina, Corrie was able to survive her ordeal with the support of a sibling and the power of forgiveness. She became an inspirational speaker and author, helping to revive the downtrodden and to reunite the resistance movement with the collaborators in Holland.

Someone with Corrie ten Boom’s healing influence could have made a difference in post- war Romania. The narrator of The Land of Green Plums is the daughter of a former SS officer living in Romania. She is not incarcerated, although she is repeatedly interrogated and placed under constant surveillance. She is dispossessed of her privacy, her friends, and her name. Uprooted and transplanted like a mulberry tree in a sack, her only option for survival is emigrating back to Germany. Müller, whose mother was deported to a Soviet labor camp, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for this starkly poetic novel. As literature goes this is the most impressive of the three books, yet it is lacking an important element that sustained the first two books: love.

The similarities between this YA novel, autobiography, and novel go well beyond the barbed wire on the covers. These are stories of people who have been marginalized and forced into the netherlands, socially as well as geographically. The Lithuanians who were forcibly relocated were labeled thieves and prostitutes. In order to survive in extremely hostile surroundings many were forced to conform to that level of degradation. The dictators and their labor camps may be a thing of the past, but the fragmenting of society into labels persists. It is our common enemy, and these three books are reminders of the internal threat it poses.


One Response to “Netherlands”

  1. jaclemens Says:

    Between Shades of Gray was selected as the Young Adult Book of the Year by the 2012 Indies Choice Book Awards!

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