In 1939, Russia invaded and occupied the small country of Lithuania. During this brutal campaign, many were forced to leave their home in Lithuania for Germany. Yet more were left to suffer under the terrors of Stalinized Russia. This is where the story Between Shades of Gray written by Ruta Sepetys begin. Throughout the story, different circumstance tried to break the Arvydas family apart. Yet every single time, somehow, they had pulled through. The book values human life greatly and without a doubt, one of the greatest lessons that should be learned in this book is to cherish the time one has on the planet and move on. Each character has an unique influence on Lina, which I will write about more below.
“Pathetic, and yet I survive. Surely, my survival is my punishment. This woman closes her eyes and she is gone. I wished for death since the first day, and yet I survive. Can it really be so hard to die?” (Sepetys, 318) Throughout the book, the bald man is shown as the pessimist of the group. He constantly begs for others to end him, or tell them that the Russians would kill them. Yet he survived until the end of the story. As time goes on, the bald man began to reluctantly help their group in trying to survive through the winter. When he reveals the truth of his betrayal to Lina and Jonas and the guilt he felt over the truth, he expected hate from the siblings. Yet his failures only gave Lina and Jonas newfound hope and determination to survive. “The bald man’s questions kept me awake in though. Was it harder to die, or harder to be the one who survived? I was sixteen, an orphan in Siberia, but I knew… I wanted to live.” (319)
Janina, or the girl with the dolly, is another orphan trapped within the labor camp in Trofimovsk. After the soldiers took and destroyed her doll, she claimed that her doll was in the afterlife, and from time to time, would hold conversations with her. Many people, including Lina, was slightly disturbed by her actions. Yet Janina was the one who, through her innocence, was the one who discovered the owl, which helped feed her group during their first winter “’Liale showed me something,’ she said… “What is it?” I ask, my eyes scanning the snow. “Shh…” She pulled me closer and pointed. I saw it. A huge owl lay in the snow.” (305) Her dead dolly was trying to help her live for the ones who have already passed on.
Other side characters have also contributed in the much needed warmth of their new found family. The man who wound his watch provided comfort for the younger children. The repeater could not offer anything but foolish sentiments, yet even he clung onto the, albeit unrealistic, hope of someday reaching America. Yet few characters offer more hope than Andrius. Andrius started as a stereotypical popular guy that Lina found annoying. Yet his character changed dramatically when Lina accused him of working with the NKVD for better food and a place to sleep. “’Because they threatened to kill me unless she slept with them. And if they get tired of her, they still might kill me. So how would you feel, Lina, if your mother felt she had to prostitute herself to save your life?’… ‘No, you have no idea… Poor you, digging all day long. You’re just a spoiled kid’” (159) After this ordeal, Lina felt as though she had wrong Andrius, and swallowed down her pride to apologize. He too, noticed his own mistakes through Lina and warmed up to her and her brother. He played a vital role in saving her brother from scurvy and gifted her the book Dombey and Son as an apology for smoking her first book. As they finally parted ways, Andrius gifted Lina a stone for good luck, and a promise to meet again someday. This gave her something constant in her unknown future, giving her else other than returning to her home to look forward to.
“Mother gave Ulyushka a potato… I hated that Mother shared with Ulyushka. She had tried to throw Jonas out into the snow when he was sick. She didn’t think twice about stealing from us. She never shared her food… Yet Mother insisted on sharing with her.” Elena, in the novel is a heavily inspiring character as she was polite and even kind to many of the Russians in the story, yet even then remains very proud and dignified. She is also deeply caring for her children s she sometimes gives part of her rations to her children. I think she embodies the theme of moving on the best out of every character. I even believe that she embodies the mindset of Lithuanians after they were freed from Russia’s control. “To this day, many Russians deny they ever deported a single person. But most Baltic people harbor not grudge, resentment, or ill will. They are grateful to the Soviets who showed compassion. Their freedom is precious and they are learning to live within it.” (Sepetys, Author’s Notes) She bore no ill will to Nikolai Kretzkey who hurt her daughter. Instead, she is grateful for the small human acts done by Kretzkey. She actively defends his honor in front of her children and in her lasts moments, remembered the small kindness that Ulyushka showed to her. After her death, it was discovered that she had a clean set of clothes waiting in her suitcase to prepare for her return to Lithuania.
Elena’s incredible determination and once again, hope, allowed Lina to see beyond the darkness in front of her and start seeing the world as not good or evil, but a blur of grays like the watercolor and charcoal that she used so much. People around her that she knew have done terrible things, yet the guard who kept them in the labor camps showed genuine kindness. Lina realizes that, if she wanted to survive, she has to keep on hoping her future would change, and that she would meet Andrius again. As her mother had before her, she started to think with a clear head and much optimism, something the bald man lacked. In the end, as long as our Earth, floating in space, still spins, we must keep living.