Title: Avevano spento anche la luna (Between Shades of Grey)
Author: Ruta Sepetys
“Some wars are about bombing. 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. Please research it. Tell someone. These three tiny nations have taught us that love is the most powerful army. Whether love of a friend, love of country, love of God, or even love of enemy – love reveals to us the truly miraculous nature of the human spirit.“
The “three tiny nations” are Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, occupied in 1940 by Stalin’s troops. “It is estimated that Josef Stalin killed more than 20 million people during his reign of terror“. In the Baltics more than a third of the population was lost.
The writer Ruta Sepetys, born in Michigan, has Lithuanian origins (her father is the son of an officer in the army) and, in her desire to uncover her family’s history, she went twice to Lithuania to do research and meet survivors of the gulag and deportations.
I can assure you the result is totally astounding because in describing the suffering we get the feeling she has lived through it herself and Between Shades of Grey (this is the original English title though the review is of the Italian edition, under the title “Avevano spento anche la luna”) is certainly one of the best novels I’ve read recently.
It’s June 14th 1941. Lina Vilkas, 15 years old, is dragged away in the dead of night by agents of the NKVD, the Soviet Secret Police (the force that would later become the KGB) together with her mother and brother Jonas. On the truck they find many other people, a teacher, a librarian, a hotel owner and many men that Lina had seen talking in the street with her father, rector of the local University. “They were all on the list. I didn’t know what the list was, I just knew that our name was on it...”.
This was the beginning of a very long and desperate journey filled with hunger, intense fatigue and dead bodies left in the road, a journey that the author describes by focusing on the narrow space where the deportees are piled up, transmitting feelings of anguish and fear in 80 pages that carry the reader along at an incredible pace.
“I could feel their bad breath on me, their elbows and their knees in my back. Sometimes I was overcome with the desire to push all these people away from me, but it would have been no use. We were packed in like matches in a box”.
Before running out of the house, Lina was able to grab a notebook and pencil case. It would be her art that would give her strength, it would be the drawings she tries so valiantly to complete that would give her the hope of finding her father.
This new life, if you can call it that, started in the Altaj. The food was scarce and rationed, the guards that watched the kolkhoz were brutal with their insults and spitting, while the deportees were forced to work without rest, cutting wood, harvesting beetroot and digging ditches which would be their graves.
“I remembered my father had told me that Stalin had confiscated land, equipment and animals from the farmers. He then told them what crops to plant and decided how much they would be paid. How could Stalin take, just like that, something that did not belong to him, something he didn’t own, that a farmer and his family had worked for all their lives? «That’s Communism, Lina», my father told me“.
As if all this wasn’t enough, the Altaj was just the first stop. Even greater humiliation and suffering awaited the deportees at the end of another long journey… but Lina was determined to live. At any cost.
And in her story we find all the dignity of an entire population.
This book comes highly recommended.
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