To bear witness, lest we forget.

Between Shades of GrayBetween Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Reading a book like this makes you ashamed of every time you ever whined about anything.

Fifteen-year old Lina, her mother, and her little brother Jonas, along with hundreds of thousands of other Lithuanians and Latvians and Estonians and Finns, are yanked out of their homes in Lithuania by Stalin’s NKVD in 1941. They are thrown on trains that take them out of Europe and into Asia, where they are forced to work as slave labor, first in a Siberian beet field and then in a Siberian fishing village on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. After the few things they managed to take with them are sold they steal beets from the fields and eat scraps out of the guards’ garbage. When they are moved to Trofimovsk under the even more sadistic Captain Ivanov, even those options are gone.

Stalin was engaged in ethnic cleansing of the most sweeping kind. Hitler wasn’t the only monster loose in Europe during World War II.

Lina says

I hated them, the NKVD and the Soviets. I planted a seed of hatred in my heart. I swore it would grow to be a massive tree whose roots would strangle them all.

In the afterword, Sepetys writes

…most Baltic people harbor no grudge, resentment or ill will. They are grateful to the Soviets who showed compassion.

Yeah, big whoop for Dr. Samodurov, and guard Nikolai Kretzsky, who was in fact half Finnish himself, two kind men out of all the NKVD brute bastards who abused and beat and starved and murdered them long past the ending of the war.

Some wars are about bombing, Sepetys writes. For the people of the Baltics, this war was about believing. In 1991, after fifty years of brutal occupation, the 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…These three tiny nations have taught us that love is the most powerful army. Whether love of friend, love of country, love of God, or even love of enemy–love reveals to us the truly miraculous nature of the human spirit.”

Pretty to think so, and there is, amazingly, laughter and love herein, but the only thing that really kept Lina (and me) going was the aforementioned tree of hatred.

This isn’t an easy read but I tore through it in an evening anyway. It’s a chapter of human history I knew very little of, and it reminded me yet again that fiction is a marginally easier way into stories like these, whose virtue is to bear witness, lest we forget. But when I do read these books, like The Poisonwood Bible (the Congo) and Birds Without Wings (Turkey), I wonder just how far The Hunger Games is from us all.

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