Between Shades of Gray Summary
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 56-page guide for “Between Shades of Gray” by Ruta Sepetys includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 81 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, and essay topics.
Between Shades of Gray is a fictionalized account of what happened to many Lithuanians—and others from Estonia and Latvia—after the Soviet Union annexed and occupied the Baltic States in 1940. Thousands of citizens of these countries were deported and imprisoned, and many of them ended up in Siberian forced labor camps like the ones Lina Vilkas and her mother and brother are sent to in the book. The novel is told from the first-person perspective of a fifteen-year-old artist, Lina, and begins with the dramatic statement, “They took me in my nightgown” (24). It chronicles her family’s arrest by the Soviet police and their journey from Kaunaus in Lithuania to Trofimovsk, near the North Pole, a journey that takes over a year and ends with their imprisonment at the North Pole for over a decade.
The book is divided into three sections: “thieves and prostitutes” describes the weeks of travel from Kaunaus to the first forced labor camp they stay at—a beet farm in the Altai region of Siberia; “maps and snakes” details the Vilkas’s life at the Altai labor camp; and “ice and ashes,” which is an account of Lina and her family’s journey to the Trofimovsk camp above the Arctic Circle, where they learn of Lina’s father’s execution in Krasnoyarsk prison and where her mother finally dies of grief and starvation. The eighty-five short chapters of the novel also include intermittent flashbacks—memories of Lina’s past that tell us more about who she is, who her family is, and, finally, how they ended up among the millions who were deported, imprisoned, and/or killed during Stalin’s regime.
Throughout the ordeal that the book chronicles, Lina’s mother, Elena, serves as constant example of the power of love. She never stops caring deeply for the wellbeing of those around her, including but not at all limited to, her own children and she often going without her own meager rations in order to feed someone else. She shares any food she is able to get beyond their inadequate bread rations, and even buys candy and cigarettes for everyone during a train stop in Part One. Elena also teaches Lina the importance of not holding onto hate, and given what they go through, it is a difficult lesson to learn. At first, Lina can do nothing but hate the Soviets. Paradoxically, it’s only after she loses both her parents that she begins to understand the power of love and to value compassion above all else.
The book is also the coming-of-age story of a young girl, which, not surprisingly, means she falls in love. Lina meets Andrius Arvydas on the train to Siberia and grows to love him in the ten months they spend together before the Vilkas’s are sent further north. Lina’s developing relationship with Andrius dominates the first two sections of the book, but her confrontation with the Soviet guard Nikolai Kretzsky in the last section provides the two defining moments of her development as a moral agent. Lina’s hatred for Kretzsky ebbs and wanes over the course of the first two sections, depending on the nature of their encounters in the camp, but it reaches its apex in the third section when he tells Lina’s mother of her father’s death. Though it is Ivanov, Kretzsky’s fellow NKVD officer, who cruelly mimes her husband’s execution to convey the news of his death, Kretzsky’s presence at the time of the devastating news and his awkward attempts to console Elena cause Lina’s rage at him to boil over.
In the two months after she learns of her husband’s death, Elena’s health declines sharply until she finally dies of cold, starvation, and grief. After her death, Lina encounters a drunken Kretzsky, who tells her about his own dead mother and how much he hates himself, and Lina is finally able to feel compassion for him. This compassion leads to the novel’s resolution, as Kretzsky leaves the camp to follow his conscience and sends a doctor and inspection officer there to ensure that the prisoners’ conditions improve.
The book ends with an Epilogue that tells us that Lina survived for ten more years in Siberia, as did her brother and Andrius. She returns to Lithuania, marries Andrius, and buries her writings and drawings about her time in Siberia so that one day, when they can no longer be endangered by it, the truth will come out and the world will know what happened to so many innocent people.