One night a few weeks ago I began to read Between Shades of Gray, a young adult book by first time American author Ruta Sepetys, and couldn't stop turning those pages until I finished at five a.m. as the sun rose over Cardigan Bay. The novel follows 15-year-old Lina, snatched in her nightgown from her home in Lithuania by Stalin's army in 1941, as she and her family are deported in cattle trucks to Siberia and eventually incarcerated in a prison camp near the shore of the Arctic Ocean with minimal food and no suitable clothing. This ethnic cleansing, in which over 300,000 Lithuanians were forcibly removed so that Soviet citizens could take possession of their homes and jobs is one of the least known stories of the second world war, and I wanted to know why and how Ruta had come to write this fictional account of it – such a welcome trend from the recent teen and YA obsession with fantasy. So I was delighted to be offered the opportunity to interview her.
At her London hotel she told me about a knock at her door late the previous night. But it wasn't the KGB.
A voice said, ' Ms. Sepetys? Please check your email for an important message from your US publisher.' She checked – and learned that her book had just made the New York Times best-seller list. It's every writer's dream. 'But this is not about me, it's about this previously untold story.'
Ruta was born and brought up in the USA. 'I always knew my Lithuanian father had fled his home country. And I learned very briefly at school that the Russians had occupied the Baltic countries during WW2. But when I tried to talk about it with him, or with my grandfather, who'd escaped to the US later, the conversation was closed.' In 2005 Ruta was able to visit Lithuania for the first time and meet her relatives.
Little by little, details emerged. When she asked to see photos of dead relatives heads were shaken. No photographs. They'd had to burn them all because Ruta's grandfather was a member of the Lithuanian resistance. Countless numbers had died in the forced labour camps while survivors dared not speak of their experiences. And those who escaped abroad suffered guilt about those left behind – hence the silences.
When Ruta decided to write a book about these atrocities she made two further visits to Lithuania for research purposes and went into it all very thoroughly, even to the extent of volunteering to be locked up in a Latvian prison which had been preserved from the era of repression. 'It was a simulation experience which some students in Latvia had requested for some research they were doing.' The very real violence used by her 'captors' left Ruta with a deep sense of shame about her behaviour – she had been too frightened to try to help her young fellow victims. 'Before that, I felt angry with the bystanders. I thought, how can you stand by and let that happen to your neighbours?' Afterwards she understood, and this empathy has informed her characterisation of several minor players in her story – those shades of grey which inspired the title.
Put in that situation I suspect that I, like most of us, would also have been a bystander.