As for the story itself, it is heartbreaking, but also encouraging. Lina and her little brother are forced to grow up fast in the labor camps, and their strength is inspiring. Probably one of my absolute favorite characters was their mother, and I found myself aching with what she must have gone through in order to try to make life bearable for her children. I also found the array of characters extremely interesting. Not all the prisoners are inspiring -- one, in particular, drove me crazy every time he opened his mouth -- and not all the guards are despicable. I always find it fascinating when stories will explore why good people may be pushed to do terrible things, and while this one doesn't dive too deeply into that subject -- since its narrator is a 15-year-old deportee -- it touched on it in a thought-provoking way.
The events are extremely difficult to read about. From the moment the Vilkas family is pulled from their home, nothing that happens to them is easy or pleasant. Many of the things that happen are shocking and terrible, and all the more horrifying to know that humans once found this sort of treatment acceptable. Good and admirable characters wither and die, while abominable characters thrive. Much like reading about the Holocaust, reading about the Baltic deportations is not a pleasant experience.
At the same time, the writing is lovely. Ruta tells the story using sparse and simple prose that cut straight to the emotional core of what is happening. It took no time at all for me to be completely immersed in the story, and while the events it depicted were appalling, the way they were presented was beautiful. It made the small moments of love and kindness in the midst of an incredibly bleak time shine through that much more.
I think Between Shades of Gray is already on many school reading lists, as it should be. It's both educational and moving, a fantastic example of both fine writing and important storytelling. I loved it even as it broke my heart again and again, and I'd recommend this book to anyone.