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Book Review

Between Shades of Gray by Ruth Sepetys has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. The movie for this book, which released in 2018, is called Ashes in the Snow.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Lina Vilkas is just 15 when her family is deported from Lithuania as part of the Baltic annexation of 1940. This fictional story is based on true accounts of Lithuanians who survived Stalin’s deportations and genocide.

Soviet secret police, called the NKVD, capture Lina’s family at night. Lina, her mother, Elena, and her younger brother, Jonas, are separated from Papa. They’re packed like cattle in a train car with others from their city. The cars on the train are labeled “prostitutes and thieves.” On their initial journey to Siberia, which takes about six weeks, they are given little food and water, and seldom see daylight. Lina sneaks into another car and sees her father. He urges her to be strong and that’s the last she ever sees of him. Lina, a skilled artist, often draws and writes on a handkerchief. She hopes to pass it along until it reaches Papa so maybe he can find them someday.

In Siberia, Lina’s group is sent to a labor camp. Lina, Jonas and Elena are forced to live with a cantankerous woman named Ulyushka, who makes them pay rent to live in her cramped quarters. Their difficult labor includes digging holes under the watchful eye of a soldier named Kretzsky.

Each prisoner is given 300 grams of bread a day. Elena does her best to keep her children with her. However, she denies the NKVD’s request that she work as a translator for them. She and others in their group also refuse to sign the NKVD’s documents locking them into 25 years of service for “crimes against the state.”

Elena’s failure to cooperate sometimes causes extra strife for her and the children. Lina begins to grow fond of a boy named Andrius, whom she initially despised when they met on the train to Siberia. When Jonas nearly dies of scurvy, Andrius steals a can of tomatoes for him and saves his life.

Several months later, Lina and her family are sent to a wilderness area near the North Pole. The weather and living conditions are terrible for them. Andrius and his mother remain in the first camp, where Andrius’ mother has been forced to prostitute herself to keep her son alive. Andrius and Lina have vowed to meet again.

Lina learns her father helped her cousin and family escape to Germany, which is the reason she and her family now suffer. Her mother learns from Kretzsky that Papa has died in prison. Elena grows weak and dies, leaving Lina to care for Jonas.

A Soviet doctor arrives at their camp just in time to save the ailing boy. The story ends with Lina feeling some sense of hope because she and Jonas have survived the winter. The epilogue indicates that Andrius and Lina reunite and marry after the war.

A few of the Vilkas’ notable companions are Mr. Stalas (usually called “the bald man”), Ona and Miss Grybas. When the Soviet secret police begin rounding up prisoners, Mr. Stalas jumps from the moving truck. He hopes to kill himself so as not to suffer the horrors ahead. He doesn’t die, so the soldiers scoop up his broken body and put it back on the truck. Mr. Stalas remains cranky and demanding throughout the story, requiring other prisoners to care for him, despite their own horrific circumstances. He eventually admits to having given the Soviets names of local professionals, including lawyers and teachers. This is what landed them in the camps.

In the end, Stalas advocates for Jonas and Lina. After the initial roundup of prisoners, the truck waits in front of a hospital for a woman to give birth. Once doctors have cut the cord, Ona and her newborn are thrown onto the truck with the others. Ona has difficulty nursing, and her baby dies on the train ride to Siberia. Ona is inconsolable, and soldiers eventually shoot her. Miss Grybas is a spinster teacher from Lina’s school who helps sneak food to her.

Christian Beliefs

After Elena dies, a fellow prisoner recites the 23rd Psalm.

Other Belief Systems

Ruthless dictators Hitler and Stalin vie for power and kill thousands of innocent people based on race.

Authority Roles

Hitler and Stalin kill and deport thousands, forcing them to live in filth, hunger and torture. Mother makes many sacrifices to keep her children safe but refuses to spy for the enemy. Kretzsky is generally cruel toward his prisoners but occasionally shows kindness to Mother. He demonstrates his despair and regret when talking to Lina near the end.


The Lord’s name is used in vain. The words d--n and b--tard also appear. Deportees experience cruelty in many forms. They spend weeks crowded together in filthy train cars. They’re shot and beaten, stricken with typhus and attacked by lice that feed on their open sores.

Guards kill one man for resisting by driving a stake through his head. Some are forced to prostitute themselves to survive, while others, including Lina, are ogled and fondled by guards. Some people hang themselves.

Dead bodies are everywhere, sometimes thrown from trains or left in piles. Limbs decompose or are eaten by wild animals. Lina often sees the dead bodies of her former companions. The Bald Man urges the group to eat him if he dies.


The NKVD forces Andrius’ mother to become their prostitute in exchange for her son’s life. Officers ogle, grope and make obscene gestures toward Lina, her mother and other women in the camps. The bald man asks Lina if the guards have gotten between her legs and her mother’s. Lina kisses Andrius.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments/Notes

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

16 and up


Ruth Sepetys






Record Label



Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, published by the Penguin Group


On Video

Year Published



Kirkus Best Books for Teens, 2011; Booklist Editors’ Choice, 2011 and others


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