Between Shades of Gray Ruta Sepetys

By: Claire Kim

People taken by Russian officers in 1941 and forced into tightly spaced cattle cars. Photos from Memento 2001 - THE FIRST DEPORTATION PERIOD 1941–1948, Museum of Occupation, in 2001,

The novel, "Between Shades of Gray" written by Ruth Sepetys is generally based on true facts regarding social, geographical, cultural, and historical aspects that occurred during the 1940's. Several Russian officers, also known as the NKDV, remove a various range of families from their homes and into populous cattle cars.

map included in the novel, "Between Shades of Gray" by Ruta Sepetys. Book Review: Between Shades of Gray,Lydia M. Olson Library, September 2, 2016,
map included in the novel, "Between Shades of Gray" by Ruta Sepetys. Book Review: Between Shades of Gray,Lydia M. Olson Library, September 2, 2016,


In the beginning of the novel, in 1941, an abounding number of people are forced to cram into cattle cars in which were eventually driven to Siberia. Comparing the novel to reality, both display a clear view of how harsh the conditions were in the cattle cars from the lack of food and water, to the strict demands and threats addressed by the officers. While generally being driven to Siberia, groups of people were sold, beaten, and killed along the way. Through these severe circumstances, Lina, her brother Jonas, and their mother Elena try their best to stay strong through their many hardships in this journey, " 'Where are they taking us?' I asked. 'To Siberia I think.' Siberia? That couldn't be right. Siberia was half a world away" (Sepetys, 43). Like in historical reality, Russian officers took multiple cattle cars filled with people to locations around the world including Siberia.

images of the novel, "Between Shades of Gray" by Ruth Sepetys. Nashville Reads Makes Spring 2015 Selection, Humanities Tennessee, January 12, 2015,


Although Lina, Jonas, and Elena did not have major cultural traditions or cultural beliefs, they continued to strive for some sense of hope throughout their journey while experiencing many hardships. Connecting to the novel, near the beginning of their journey, they did say their prayers about love and Lithuania, their home, " 'I love you both...Tell her to think of the oak tree. Say your prayers, children, and I will hear them. Pray for Lithuania...' " (Sepetys, 44). When Lina discovered her father in another cattle car, he made a strong statement to stay with their mother while saying prayers until they are able to see one another again. Overall, there were not a large portion of cultural context shown by the author in this novel, but did show hints of some cultural aspects.

Susan Carpenter, People are packed and getting shipped onto the cattle cars. Not Just for Kids: 'Between Shades of Gray' by Ruta Sepetys, Los Angeles Times, March 27, 2011,


Author Ruta Sepetys combined factual, historical events within her fictional story line in the novel. By doing this, she presents real incidents and periods of time in the novel, " 'Where are they taking us?' I asked. 'To Siberia I think.' Siberia? That couldn't be right. Siberia was half a world away" (Sepetys, 43). Along with these historical occurrences, the author also greatly emphasizes the critical conditions that people had to push through while "living" on cattle cars, " 'Don't you realize this is just the beginning? We have a chance to die with dignity'...The hospital doors opened and a great cry erupted from within. An NKVD officer dragged a barefoot woman in a bloodied hospital gown down the steps" (Sepetys, 16 and 20). Due to the socially unfairnees in the society, people grew terrified of the Russian officers and gradually began to lose hope of love and freedom. Not only this, but people that were placed in the filthy cattle cars lacked food and water, were threatened, were hurt, and even killed.

People contrived onto cattle cars by officers, Nazi Train Full of Gold Rumored to be Found, Seeker, August 21, 2015,


As observed frequently in today's society, there were similar social differences during the 1940's, the time period of the novel. Similar to today, there were clear social rankings, from people working as slaves, to commanding officers. However, unlike our society, the divergent amounts of power by people of this time period were distinctively shown through the authors diction and reactions of characters, " 'Davai!' An NKVD officer grabbed Jonas by the shoulders and began to drag him away...I knew that watch. I was her father's and had his name engraved in the soft gold on the back...Have you ever wondered what a human life was worth? That morning, my brother's was worth a packet watch" (Sepetys, 26 and 27). The Russian officers did not just have the right to order, demand and threaten people, but they were also able to beat and kill people who did not meet their satisfaction, " Ona stood up and stamped her right foot. The commander stepped up and pulled Ona from the truck. She lost all control, screaming, clawing at him...He threw her to the ground...The commander pulled out a pistol and shot Ona in the head" (Sepetys, 101). These harsh conditions continued throughout the journey of Lina, Jonas, and Elena, containing many downfalls and hardships.

In reality, there are thousands of stories that have been told by survivors of this time period. Here is just one example, the president of Lithuania:

Officers force people into cattle cars, Soviet Mass Deportations of June 14 1941, Latvian History, June 14, 2012,

As a whole, the novel, "Between Shades of Gray" by Ruta Sepetys develops a strong, emotional story based on tragic events that have occurred from the 1940's to the mid 1900's. By connecting characters to geographical, cultural, historical, and social aspects of the 1900's to fictional characters, it establishes vivid images of historical reality.

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