Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

“Heartbreaking, Searing, and Lyrically Written”

Nashville novelist Ruta Sepetys has had the kind of year every debut novelist dreams of

Ruta Sepetys spent five years researching her debut YA novel, Between Shades of Gray, which tells the story of fifteen-year-old Lina, taken from her home in Lithuania and deported to a series of ever-harsher gulags in Siberia during Stalin’s reign of terror. Sepetys traveled twice to Lithuania, spent time in the cattle cars that transported prisoners to the gulags, and even had herself imprisoned in a work camp, the better to understand her heroine’s suffering. She interviewed survivors, psychologists, family members, government officials, and historians, and delved deep into her own family history. (Her father and grandparents escaped Stalin’s purges, though other relatives perished.) “I felt a weighty responsibility to get this story right—for history, for my heritage, and for these survivors—especially the survivors,” Sepetys told Publisher’s Weekly in February. “Because this chapter of history remained secret, no one had ever celebrated their bravery or consoled their regrets.”

Her message has come through loud and clear. Pre-publication, the novel racked up stars from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal, and Booklist, as well as the only blue ribbon ever bestowed on a YA novel by the Book-of-the-Month Club. When Between Shades of Gray hit the shelves, it became a New York Times bestseller within a week. To date, the novel has been published in twenty-nine countries. And critics all over the world have gone wild.

Meanwhile, Sepetys’s own star has continued to rise. After returning from her second international book tour to promote Between Shades of Gray this year, the author recently signed a six-figure contract to continue with Philomel, a division of Penguin, for two more books. Then, in November, Sepetys flew to Paris to accept the prestigious Prix RTL-Lire, a French prize for the best novel for young people published in the last year. Now yet another honor has come her way: Between Shades of Gray has just been named a New York Times Notable Book of 2011. Below, Chapter 16 takes an end-of-an-amazing-year tour through the novel’s stellar reviews:

“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.” ~Ingrid Roper, writing in Publisher’s Weekly

“Heartbreaking, searing and lyrically written, ‘Between Shades of Gray’ is a novel that is both challenging to read without weeping, and impossible to forget—especially when readers realize that Sepetys based her book on firsthand accounts from Lithuanian survivors of the Siberian camps. Overall, readers will finish the book with a strong sense of hope, as well as a desire to ensure that such things never happen again.” ~Karen Macpherson, writing in The Seattle Times

“Written in the style of The Diary of Anne Frank, Between Shades of Gray is a haunting and emotionally charged experience for readers, and a highly personal odyssey for the author.” ~Pam Norfolk, writing in the Lytham St. Annes Express

“The fluid narrative is compelling yet restrained. The horrors of the cattle trucks and the gulag, the cruelty of the Soviet guards, are all there. Minor characters are memorably and vividly drawn, and the first half of the book, in particular, roars along. Dr Johnson wrote that the only end of writing is to enable readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it. Hard to read but even harder to stop reading, there is no doubt into which category this tremendous first novel belongs.” ~Linda Buckley-Archer, writing in The Guardian

“This bitterly sad, fluidly written historical novel tackles a topic woefully underdiscussed in English-language children’s fiction: Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror. … Brief flashbacks, seamlessly interwoven, illuminate Lina’s sweet old life in Kaunas like flashes of light, eventually helping to reveal why the repressive, deadly regime targeted this family. Sepetys’ flowing prose gently carries readers through the crushing tragedy of this tale that needs telling.” ~Kirkus Reviews

“The full extent of Stalin’s genocide will never truly be known, but it certainly had no boundaries. Ruta Sepetys stunningly portrays the devastation of Lithuania through the eyes of 15-year-old Lina and the story of her family’s deportation to Siberia. The camp scenes not only accurately display the horror of the Great Terror but also show the courage and resilience of those who survived this colossal crime. Consider this the young adult version of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” ~Bill Cusumano, writing for IndieBound

“A story of hardship as well as human triumph, ‘Between Shades of Gray’ is an eye-opening reimagination of a very real tragedy written with grace and heart.” ~Susan Carpenter, writing in the Los Angeles Times

“Few books are beautifully written, fewer still are important; this novel is both.” ~Mary Quattlebaum, writing in The Washington Post

“’Between Shades of Gray’ and the other books in this tiny but perhaps widening historical niche are worth a young reader’s time not just because they move or uplift (which they do). These volumes also give children the opportunity to develop as clear and educated an opinion about communism as they will have already formed about Nazism. And that’s something worth having.” ~Meghan Cox Gurdon, writing in The Wall Street Journal

“Just when you, the reader, think you cannot breathe that fetid air another moment—Sepetys’ writing is that vivid—the train stops, and the Lithuanians stagger out and find themselves in Siberia. They spend most of a year in a labor camp, living in deprivation and squalor, but it is nothing compared to where they are sent next—Trofimovsk, above the Arctic Circle, where there is no shelter for them at all. … This book sings with truth.” ~Laurie Hertzel, writing in the Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Many beautiful books that tell important stories do not ultimately reach the readers who were meant to find them. What, then, happened here? How did a debut novel—a debut historical novel—end up beating the odds and finding its way to Australia, Brazil, China, Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Hong Kong, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Macau, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, and the UK? And yes—I’ve indulgently listed all countries here, because look at that list. Look at the world that opened itself to Between Shades of Gray. And consider this: Sepetys’ book was not just sold to international young adult markets. Many territories are publishing the book for adults.” ~Beth Kephart, writing in Publishing Perspectives

“Unrelenting sadness permeates this novel, but there are uplifting moments when the resilience of the human spirit and the capacity for compassion take over. This is a gripping story that gives young people a window into a shameful, but likely unfamiliar history.” ~Renee Steinberg, writing in School Library Journal

“Sepetys, the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, estimates that the Baltic States lost more than one-third of their populations during the Russian genocide. Though many continue to deny this happened, Sepetys’ beautifully written and deeply felt novel proves the reality is otherwise. Hers is an important book that deserves the widest possible readership.” ~Michael Cart, writing in Booklist