History Forgotten Is History Relived, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

sepetys-coverIn this heartbreaking story, based on real life events and characters, debut novelist Ruta Sepetys recounts the horror of life in Stalin’s prisons during World War II and after. With searing detail this gifted writer drags the reader into the horrors of life under the Soviet Union for any who came into conflict with the system. Sepetys never lets the reader look away from the brutality. She piles on the suffering and the struggle, from hunger, disease, humiliation, and deprivation, but she also relates the beauty and persistence of love even under extreme duress.  

In the early morning of June 1941, NKVD forces of the Lithuanian Army arrest 15 year old Lina, her younger brother Jonas, and their mother. Loaded onto a cattle car, along with other “traitors” to the Communist Rule in Lithuania, they are shipped to forced labor farms. From there they end up in Siberia. In both prisons they suffer brutal conditions, starvation rations and violence. Sepetys’s story, however, never descends into utter hopelessness. In the face of unspeakable treatment, Lina’s mother demonstrates for her children, and all those around them, both prisoners and guards alike, how to hold onto one’s humanity and see the world through another’s eyes, even when all seems lost.

Sepetys explains in an Author’s Note that twenty million people suffered and died in Stalin’s camps, and that this forgotten history must be remembered, because history forgotten is history relived. As she herself writes, these victims “chose love over hate and that even through the darkest night, there is light.”

In reality, though, her story reminds us of an even deeper truth: that evil and hate can only be conquered by kindness and love, even in the face of death.

Violence – V -Violence is realistically portrayed but not gratuitous or gruesomely described

Sex – S —  Sexual violence not openly portrayed but hinted at.


Quick Lit review: All American Boys – From the Headlines to a 2016 Coretta Scott King Author Honor book, and the Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature.


Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s book, All American Boys, tells the story behind the headlines of a racially charged clash between a young black male and a white police officer. While all the names and details are fictional, the tragic truth remains that the facts are all too real. When Rashad Butler is brutally beaten after a string of racist misjudgments on the part of a store clerk and a police officer, a community is torn in two. Because the scenario leading up to the beating is so mundane, this story provides the reader with a chance to ponder the realities of what happens when white people — store clerks, police officers and innocent bystanders –jump to conclusions and react without checking their biases, or do nothing at all.

As one boy, Rashad, a black high school jock and Junior ROTC recruit, recovers in the hospital, another, Quinn Collins, the white boy who witnessed the event, struggles to understand what he saw in the face of conflicting stories and false assumptions. The resulting soul searching and tension between each boy and his family and community shed much needed light on the implications of trying to just stay out of it. Reynolds and Kiely tell the tale honestly and deliberately, digging into both sides of the story so there can be no illusions about the reality of how racism effects the lives of all members of a community. By writing a two-person narrative, one Rashad’s, and the other Quin’s, whose family is intimately associated with the police officer who did the beating, the authors allow no room for neutrality. As the two boys struggle to understand what happened, each one recognizes that only through his own actions can anything truly change in their community or the world. Each one independently and reluctantly steps into the role he must play for the community to move toward solutions. The authors stop short of neatly tying the story up with a community healed and reconciliation on the horizon. Instead they offer testimony to the racism suffered by young black men in America. They demonstrate that  wishing for life to just get back to normal, or failing to act on the truth are no way to respond to injustice and racism. Reynolds and Kiely offer the hope that only when each of us makes the decision to respond to and question the socially entrenched racism we live in daily can things begin to change.

Violence – V – the details of the attack are not graphic;
Sex – No overt sexual activity or talk
Questionable Behavior – ?? – Several of the characters engage in or discuss underage drinking, drug use and property vandalism.