Author sheds light on harsh history
By Mike Haynes
The bread keeps coming back to me. Dry bread, 300 grams. Eaten in a wooden shack on a dirt floor with freezing temperatures and blowing snow outside.
The 300 grams was the amount of bread a 15-year-old girl would get for the day if she had done her work digging useless holes in the mud or drawing maps for Soviet officers. Same amount for her little brother, same for her mother, same for each of the Lithuanians living in their dirty Siberian hut.
With any perceived idleness or failure to obey a command, the 300 grams was reduced. People who had been librarians and teachers and wives of college professors were starving.
My empathy for these regular people in unbearable circumstances is stirred by a fictional story: “Between Shades of Gray,” by Ruta Sepetys. But the hell she describes, which includes the separation of families and executions of those who resist, really happened. Sepetys interviewed survivors of a little-known World War II tragedy to fill her novel with true-to-life incidents.
The book is Amarillo College’s Common Reader for 2015-16. New students are given copies, some instructors use it in their classes, and the author will be in town Oct. 29 to speak on campus and to the public.
Sepetys’ main purpose is to bring to light the extermination, mostly by shipping people to labor camps and starving them, of anyone Joseph Stalin considered “enemies of the state” after the USSR had annexed the Baltic countries between Poland and Russia. Those
“enemies” consisted primarily
of local political leaders and anyone who was educated enough to possibly
question Stalin’s policies.
In the novel, Lina Vilkas, the 15-year-old getting ready to attend art school, falls prey to the NKVD – the Soviet secret police – because her father is a professor and her parents may have helped others escape the roundup of “undesirables.” In June 1941, her father is taken to prison while she, her mother, Elena, and her 10-year-old brother, Jonas, are loaded onto filthy railroad cars and transported across the Soviet Union, ultimately to the Laptev Sea north of the Arctic Circle.
Those who survive do so through faith, ingenuity and bonding. Becky Easton, an assistant professor of English at Amarillo College, pointed out that Lina and the people she is thrown together with exemplify Ecclesiastes 4:12: “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”
In the book many are broken, but not quickly. Elena keeps her children alive by giving up her own food, her body slowly deteriorating. Easton said this mother lives out John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” – and family.
Other characters, even a young NKVD guard, put themselves in danger to help others, revealing some inner compassion even as they follow orders.
We know about the tribulation that millions of Jews suffered under Hitler in the Holocaust. We’re not so familiar with what Stalin did. He starved millions of people, yes, but that’s just a statistic. Reading about a small group of townspeople toiling by day, eating scraps of food by night, hacking at frozen soil to bury their dead, we learn how Stalin’s crimes played out.
One of the few moments of joy in the story is a sparse Christmas Eve celebration when a group of sufferers gathers in one shack. In a labor camp, a stolen potato, a few biscuits from a nearby village and a small package of chocolate are a feast. The captives sing carols and remember happier Christmases with family members who now are missing or dead.
But on Christmas Day, Lina says, “They worked us hard.”
Still, there is grace. Easton reminded me how, in Sepetys’ book, Elena puts “love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44) into practice by handing a potato to Ulyushka, a self-centered woman who has hoarded her own food. The mother also defends a Soviet guard when Lina wishes illness on him: “Lina, think of what your father would say. A wrongdoing doesn’t give us the right to do wrong. You know that.”
Writer Sepetys is successfully uncovering a harsh period of modern history. The book has won prestigious awards, and the film version of her story will be released in 2016.
She also reminds us that people can be strong even without their daily bread – especially when they join together in faith. Near the end, Lina says, “We’d been trying to touch the sky from the bottom of the ocean. I realized that if we boosted one another, maybe we’d get a little closer.”