Basic plot: Fifteen-year-old Lina, her 10-year-old brother Jonas, and her mother are taken from their home in Lithuania in the middle of the night by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. First they are loaded into a truck and then crammed into cattle cars, their destination unknown. Lina's father, a professor at the local university, had disappeared the night before. His educated status marked he and his family as threats to the Soviet regime, and worse, he helped some of his family members escape the country. Lina and her brother briefly see their father, held in another cattle car, but men are kept separate from women and children. After nearly a month of traveling, Lina, her mother and brother arrive in a labor camp in Siberia. At the labor camp, Lina, her family, and those who survived the train ride are forced to dig holes, plant vegetables, make shoes, etc. by day and then woken in the middle of each night by Soviet officers demanding they sign a document stating they are criminals. After almost a year there, most of the camp is transferred to an island in the Arctic Circle, just off the North Pole, where conditions are even worse and Lina, her family and friends continue their struggle to survive.
Why I liked it: Too often, we only know one side of history. While Hitler and the Nazis were monsters, responsible for the loss of six million plus lives, they were not the only "bad guys" and many more civilian lives were lost in the events surrounding WWII. But we hear much less about Stalin and the Soviets because they eventually joined the United States and the Allied forces to stop the Germans and end WWII. This novel brings to light the lesser known events of Lina, her family, and friends' lives, many of which parallel the experience of the Jews in German-occupied territories during WWII.
Classroom application: The novel could be used as a fiction pairing in a unit on WWII and its aftermath, especially if your students traditionally read Holocaust related literature. Though Lina and her family are fictional characters, it is true that those labeled anti-Soviet were imprisoned in labor camps for 10-15 years, and when they returned home in the mid-1950s were viewed as criminals, nothing remained of their former lives, and perhaps worst of all, could not speak of their experiences.
The novel could also be used as a mentor text to model the use of flashback. throughout the novel Lina has flashbacks to happier moments of her childhood. The novel might also inspire a research project where your students investigate and write about the "other side" of history. The United States' internment of the Japanese during WWII might be a topic of interest.
If you are interested in purchasing a copy of Between Shades of Gray for yourself, you can find it on Amazon here.
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