Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Please note that this is posted for our Mock Printz discussion and may have spoilers and pertinent plot points discussed.

It is 1941 and WWII is raging, but this is a very different story than what we’re used to hearing about. It is about the murder and forced removal of anyone (woman, man, child) who was labeled anti-soviet. Lina is 15 when her family is told they have 20 minutes to pack a bag and leave their house. Her family along with thousands of others are herded into boxcars. Those that survive the three week journey end up in Siberia.

The strength in this novel, besides telling a story that is largely unknown, is Lina's voice. It is strong and powerful and descriptive right from the first page. The sentences are short, almost staccato. Her story is very matter of fact, and the narrative flows regardless. This is some very impressive storytelling.

The language was very evocative and descriptive without being flowery. Many chapters, especially in the beginning end with extremely powerful declarative statements. “It was the last time I would look into a real mirror for more than a decade.” or “Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.” This peters out a bit after the first quarter of the book, but by then you've been drawn into the story and won't be able to put it down.

Chapters are fairly episodic and we move back and forth between the present and flashbacks of Lina’s life before. It is through these flashbacks that we are given hints into why the family was deported, what life was like before, etc. Each flashback is tied very well into the current narrative and I did not find them to be jarring or distracting to the story. In fact, they often shed light onto what is going on in the present as Lina processes her surroundings.

Themes of survival, holding onto one's humanity, compassion, and the importance of hope run deep in this novel. The author is unrepentant and honest in the horrors that these people suffer, but also is quick to show that even our enemies have a humanity that must be honored.

Things that struck me: Lina's mother putting on her lipstick when they finally emerge from the box car, holding onto normalcy in a most abnormal and savage environment and then realizing how her lipstick might draw the wrong attention and subtly trying to wipe it off before she's noticed. The compassion between prisoners as they help each other survive. The horrendous trip to Siberia in a boxcar.

The most interesting comparison with the other Mock Printz books is with Berlin Boxing Club. Both protagonists are artists, one author chose to show artwork, one did not. Which one was more powerful? In my opinion one does not need to show the actual artwork, for it to be believable that the protagonist is an artist. In fact, i think it worked against Berlin Boxing Club. I didn’t feel that the art and the text matched up. I didn’t feel an increase in artist talent even though the book spanned several years. By not showing the art in Between, we have to take the author’s word for it. And the author was very convincing using Munch, flashbacks, and current events to prove the artistic talent of Lena. I liked how the theme of art as survival was incorporated into the story line with coded letters and coded artwork being passed between prisoners and between camps sharing knowledge and information.

Mock Printz Titles:

A Monster Calls - Patrick Ness
Between Shades of Gray - Ruta Sepetys
Berlin Boxing Club - Robert Sharenow
(Patti's review)
Blood Red Road - Moira Young
(Patti's review)
Daughter of Smoke and Bone - Laini Taylor
(Joanna's review)
Divergent - Veronica Roth
(Patti's review)
Everybody Loves the Ants - A.S. King
(Patti's review)
Flesh and Blood so Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Legacy - Albert Marrin
Imaginary Girls - Nova Ren Suma
(Patti's review)
Where Things Come Back - John Corey Whaley


joanna said...

Really great. You hit on so many strengths but you reminded me of another weakness : they didn't know each other's names. I don't know which is more unbelievable - not opening her mother's suitcase or not knowing each other. Did they make for climatic parts of the story - yes.

Patti said...

Who didn't know whose name?

The other possible weakness was Lina's steady belief that her art would help her father rescue her. I wasn't sure if it carried on too long to be believable, or if it was just a survival strategy so that she didn't succumb to hopelessness. I thought it made her seem a little too naive.

Also her mother may have been a little too compassionate, too willing to understand the motivations of the Soviets.

joanna said...

No one is referred to by their name. Forgive me, but I don't have the book. The cranky old guy (which I thought we'd get his name once he became less horrible - and wow, I was surprised he endured the book), the little girl's name wasn't revealed until late. She referred to most characters by their descriptions. I can understand not wanting to get close to people, but on a train for weeks and you don't know someone's name? I can see this as a plot device, but it didn't sit well with me.

Patti said...

Actually, his name was Mr. Stalas. I didn't pick on his name until I re-read the book. Lina's mom always refers to him as that, but Lina never does.

I actually appreciated it a bit - the other characters ran together a bit (the teacher, the librarian - I couldn't keep them straight).

I felt like the more important characters had names and the bald man/Mr. Stalas was such a thorn in her side she didn't want to name him. It was her stubborn angry nature.

DogEar said...

I really enjoyed this book. It's been a while since I've read it but I didn't have a problem with the name situation. It's also on my system's mock Newbery list.

joanna said...

I'll need to reread. I'm not as good as a notetaker as I was when I was working, but I did have notes about the names and her mother's suitcase as points that seemed out of place. But don't get me wrong, I thought the book overall was excellent. I am sure it is on many mock lists.