When it comes to harsh stories, I have a hard time getting through them without the lifeline of hope. Perhaps the last thing anyone needs is to be left crushed by the weight of miseries they could very well live without.
But a harsh story with hope? That’s another thing altogether: misery transformed into the pearl of great price. And that is the story, the great task, of life on this earth.
Some wonderful bleak but hopeful stories that lie as buried treasures in my heart include Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Alan Paton’s masterpiece Cry, the Beloved Country. For younger readers, Bette Greene’s Summer of My German Soldier, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, and Jackie French’s A Rose for the ANZAC Boys have meant for me the same.
Between Shades of Gray is a recent, beautiful story that takes a harrowing chapter in human history and infuses it with hope.
Ruta Sepetys, the daughter of Lithuanian refugees, personalises the experience of millions of people deported to labour camps under Stalin’s “Great Purge” of the 1930s, 40s and 50s in the countries occupied by the USSR. Though a fictional novel, fifteen year old Lina’s first person account of life in a Siberian work camp helps us to live through the gruelling experience suffered by so many and yet told by so few.
But even more wondrous are the glimpses of light, hope and humanity that peep through the storm of grey. Somehow the immense suffering of the characters is outshone by their love for life and solidarity with one another.
Hope is a marvellous, powerful thing, and Sepetys shows how it can keep alight the flame of the human spirit in even the harshest earthly hell.
Even though this is a popular, modern American telling aimed at teenagers—far simpler than a philosophical Slavic version might be—readers will be struck by both the realism of the suffering and the genuineness of characters’ determination to live. But though the reality is unfathomably bleak, this story is by no means as dark and bitter as the subject matter implies. Through trauma after inhumane trauma, the prisoners fight to retain a shred of human dignity. And retain it they do, even though it costs some of them their lives. Mothers sacrifice themselves so children may eat, prisoners who seem crushed by want give what they can, and even some NKVD soldiers risk punishment to offer a gesture of help. There’s also a gentle romance to sustain the heroine (and the reader), showing how love and hope mutually strengthen each other.
Younger readers should be aware of confronting material, including the harsh treatment of the prisoners by the more ruthless NKVD soldiers. They shoot and kill captives with little provocation, and some even seem to enjoy making them suffer. Prisoners, including our protagonist, are stripped and showered en mass, with soldiers paying unwanted attention and forcing at least one mother into prostitution to allow her son to live. The characters starve and freeze and suffer desperate illnesses that make you wonder how anyone survived at all.
Yet the tone remains beautifully hopeful, as captured by the first lines quoted in the author’s note, “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” —Albert Camus
Originally posted on the blog of the Good Reading Guide website.