A simple question sparked the idea for Ruta Sepetys's first novel for young adults, Between Shades of Gray, about Stalin's genocide in the Baltic states during WWII. On a visit to her family in Lithuania in 2005, Sepetys asked to see photographs of her grandfather, an officer in the Lithuanian army who had fled to a refugee camp before the genocide began and ultimately emigrated to America. "I was stunned to learn that they had burned every picture of him, to expunge any connection and to avoid persecution. Then they told me more about what happened to those who didn't escape. That's when I knew I had to tell this story."
Due this March from Philomel, Between Shades of Gray chronicles these horrific events through 15-year-old narrator Lina, balancing the brutality of her family's deportation to work camps in Siberia and the Arctic with remarkable hope and resilience. To research the novel, Sepetys traveled to Lithuania twice and interviewed family members, government officials, members of Parliament, psychologists, historians, and survivors. She also spent time in the train cars that transported the women and children to Siberia, visited prisons that the men occupied, and even lived in one for a weekend to brave the same brutal treatment as her heroine, re-enacted by Russians posing as Soviet guards.
In writing this novel, Sepetys says, "I felt a weighty responsibility to get this story right—for history, for my heritage, and for these survivors—especially the survivors. Because this chapter of history remained secret, no one had ever celebrated their bravery or consoled their regrets."
Even now, more than two decades after the end of the Soviet occupation, survivors exhibited great fear in opening up to Sepetys about their experiences. For so long, to speak meant further persecution, so that for many it was the first time they had talked about it with anyone. Sepetys particularly admired the survivors' resilience and ability to demonstrate kindness in the face of cruelty.
The prolonged Soviet occupation meant that this chapter of history had remained largely unknown. As Tamra Tuller, Sepetys's editor at Philomel, recalls, "One of the things that struck me about the novel was that this was a part of history I didn't know anything about. At first I thought it was just me. But as I talked to people, I realized that neither did others. We know so much about the Holocaust, and yet Stalin killed 20 million people, many more than Hitler. That the genocide targeted the Baltic states, as well, has been largely overlooked." Ellen Scott, manager of the Bookworm in Omaha, Neb., says she was shocked when she first read the book. "I've been reading about the Holocaust and WWII for years. And this was a whole new story. And it was so well handled. This character and her struggle stayed with me in a way few heroines do."
The stalwart support of booksellers and early readers demonstrates that the novel's appeal relies on more than just the history it reveals. Becky Anderson, owner of Anderson Books in Naperville and Downers Grove, Ill., says, "The book is so moving and so beautifully written. And the themes of the novel are so universal. Readers will identify with the bravery, hope, and triumph of the human spirit. I see tremendous crossover potential." As Tuller states, "This is the kind of story that strikes a chord, regardless of age."
Indeed, the power of this story and the writing has generated global interest, pre-pub buzz, and attention from adult audiences and publishers. Foreign rights have sold in 22 countries, half of them to adult publishers. The novel is the first YA novel chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club National Blue Ribbon selection, and it will be featured on The Today Show's spring books roundup; independent booksellers selected it as the #1 choice on the Spring 2011 Kids' Indie Next List.
Shining light on these events can both illuminate and heal. As Bill Cusomano, buyer at Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor, Mich., says, "I consider this to be a YA version of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Sepetys's novel offers such in-depth knowledge of the Great Terror, and the camp scenes portray a microcosm of the horror of the gulag system while also demonstrating the courage of the targets of this ethnic cleansing." As Sepetys states, "History holds secrets. Secrets can be painful. Secrets can be so destructive." Thanks to Ruta Sepetys, the secret is out.