I can’t believe we are deep into February which means I’ve survived my first half term as Head of Department. Also, I’m quite proud of my progress so far too because I’ve read 16 books so far this year which I think is pretty good. I’m waiting for the slump to hit me though. I did have high hopes for half term but I’ve spent most of it with a lingering cold and dodging the relentless rain. Regardless, I hope you’re all well and staying safe in this weather. I am looking forward to catching up with you all!
You may remember from a previous post that I created my own reading challenge for 2020 (click here for a recap) and today I wanted to share with you the book I read for January: Between Shades of Gray – Ruta Sepetys. This book completely took my breath away. It is exquisitely written, moving, powerful and evocative. Get yourselves a copy as soon as possible.
What’s it all about?
Firstly, the criteria for January was a tale that represents a new beginning. When I first started reading this book, I wasn’t really sure it fit the criteria but I continued because the book was just so bloody good. Regardless, this book absolutely represents the grit and determination of people wanting to survive in some of the cruelest places on earth. There’s love, kindness, compassion and hope, even when on the surface it appears to have completely gone.
The book is based on true historical events that took place following the expansion of the Soviet Union into the surrounding countries, prior to the Second World War. The novel starts in Lithuania, in the house of Lina. There’s a ominous boom at the door which brings fear and trepidation. Lina, her younger brother Jonas and her mother Elena are taken one night by the NKVD (a forerunner for the KGB) and placed on a goods train along with many other ‘criminals’. Their crime? Unknown. No court, no charge. Just a journey in a train with ‘thieves and prostitutes’ painted on the side.
“Three NKVD officers had Mother encircled. ‘We need more time, we’ll be ready in the morning.’ ‘You have twenty minutes or you won’t live to see morning,’ said the officer. He threw his burning cigarette onto our clean living room floor and ground it into the wood with his boot. We were about to become cigarettes.”
Lina’s father is absent for this as he never returned home. At this stage we can only assume or guess why. Has he spoken out against Stalin?
From Lithuania the train travels into Siberia, a long cold, dangerous journey. Siberia does not sound like a place I’d ever want to be to be honest. Overcrowded, with no food or sanitation the cattle trucks soon become filthy and disease ridden. One by one the dead bodies begin to mount up.
Lina’s mother becomes a ray of hope amongst the devastation as she takes charge and tries to forge a purpose and unity from the scared, hungry and increasingly weak companions in their cattle truck. Her unflagging, unrelenting spirit drives them on. Lina loves to draw but in this desperate place all she can do is draw in the filth on the floor.
“I counted the people – forty-six packed in a cage on wheels, maybe a rolling coffin. I used my fingers to sketch the image in a layer of dirt on the floor near the front of the train car, wiping the drawings away and starting over, again and again.”
During this journey she meets Andrius and together they manage to make contact with people on some other trains heading into Siberia. They find Lani’s father, imprisoned on a different train but alive! He will escape, they will be together as a family again…
42 days of travelling in a cattle car and Lina arrives at Altai Labour Farm inside Siberia. They’ve had to travel with dead bodies, endure the taunting and brutality of their guards, even had a to shower in cold water with leering guards looking on.
Through all of this Lina’s mother has kept her safe, bribing guards with jewellery and money she had hidden in her clothing. For the moment however, the travelling was over. However, they were not greeted with warmth or kindness. Yet more hostility presented itself.
“ ‘What’s she saying?’ asked Jonas. ‘She says she has no room for filthy criminals,’ said Mother. The woman grabbed my hair and pulled it, yanking me towards the door to throw me out. Mother yelled and ripped the woman’s hand from my head, slapped her, and pushed her away. Jonas kicked her in the shin. The Altaian woman stared at us with angled black eyes.”
At this point the characters are forced now to work on a farm, given the bare minimum food to survive with their ration docked for any infringement of the rules, life gets worse and worse. (There is a clear link to the theme for this month – I promise!!)
The NKVD want them to sign a confession and agree to a sentence of 25 years, in return they will give them more food and permission to visit the nearby village. In an act of solidarity the prisoners refuse to sign, the only act of defiance they can muster.
Their solidarity does not last, (did it ever begin?) and the NKVD find some who will inform on the others, find some who will serve them in other even lesssavoury ways. The prisoners turn on each other, not knowing who to trust. Some sign, then more. They stop being a people and become a collection of individuals desperate to live one more day, desperate to find any ray of hope in order to survive. This was the key. Not living.Surviving.
“ ‘Mother, will there be potatoes for us tonight?” When we asked we were told we had to work to earn food. ‘If you worked for the NKVD, Mother, would they give you food?’ asked Jonas. ‘No my dear, they would give me empty promises,’ she replied, ‘which is worse than an empty belly.’”
Through all the brutality of the labour camp Lina continues to draw. This is a means of escape for the young girl, a sense of her old normal life. She manages to get paper and hides her drawings. She holds onto the dream of getting a message to her father, so he can come and rescue them.
Even though the prisoners are divided and manipulated by the NKVD, some sense of solidarity and humanity prevails. They celebrate birthdays, they find reasons to smile and sometimes they can help lift each other a little way out of the horror they are enduring. Illness comes, Jonas falls very ill. The NKVD refuse to feed him or provide a doctor. Elena manages again to protect her children, the fierce mother that she is. Amazingly, against all the odds, Jonas recovers.
Then, without warning, a number of them are selected. Herded again onto another train. Lina, Jonas and Elena are among those taken but Andrius is left behind. The journey leads them to a river and barges. They travel further and further north. Eventually they reach Trefimovsk, inside the Arctic circle. The conditions here make the farm seem like a luxury spa, freezing cold there are not even huts or shacks for shelter. The only buildings are for the guards, they are expected to build their own shelter from whatever is on the ground.
“It was completely uninhabited, not a single bush or tree, just barren dirt to a shore of endless water. We were surrounded by nothing but the polar tundra and the Laptev sea. ‘What you don’t like it? You think you are too good for this? Facist pig. Pigs sleep in the mud. Didn’t you know that?’ He moved closer to Mother. His corroded teeth protruded from under his top lip. ‘You pigs disgust me.’”
From here, life gets increasingly desperate. The prisoners are stick thin and fall ill easily. Elena’s indomitable spirit is finally crushed by the desperation of this place, by the brutality of their guards and most of all by the news that her husband has been shot. She slips into illness and her body slowly shuts down. Her only hope has been cruelty taken from her.
Winter comes and in this barren place on the edge of the world it is a terrible thing to endure. Especially when you are living in a makeshift shack with barely any food. The incrediable resilience of these wrongly accused people shines though. Desperate and down trodden though they are, the fact that they can still show compassion and still feel hope is remarkable.
The ending is a surprise for you! However, I will say it moved me to tears. It was the silent tears that you don’t even realise you’re spilling. That kind of emotion. So, in the words of the writer, I’ll end with this:
“Some wars are about bombing. For the people of the Baltics, this war was about believing. In 1991, after fifty years of brutal occupation, three Baltic countries regained their independence, peacefully and with dignity. They chose hope over hate, and showed the world that even through the darkest night, there is light.”
This book is just incredible, in ever sense of the word. New beginnings were created by a sense of never ending hope for these people. The fact that it’s based on history means that I feel an overwhelming sense of loss when characters died, their pain was my pain and I desperately wanted them to survive. It’s the perfect book to start my reading challenge with.
February – Read a book that tells the story of love: good, bad or otherwise. For this I’ve chosen to read An American Marriage – Tayari Jones. I don’t know anything about it and I’ve not seen many reviews (haven’t looked to be fair!) so let’s see what this brings for the month of love! Obama and Oprah recommend it so that’s enough for me!
More to catch up on soon.
Big love to you all. Xx