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Originally published Saturday, June 4, 2011 at 6:00 AM

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'Between Shades of Gray' reveals horror and hope

Kids' books: "Between Shades of Gray" (for ages 12 up) details the efforts by a strong-willed Lithuanian teen and her family to survive the harsh reality of being deported to a prison camp in Siberia in 1941.

Scripps Howard News Service

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For years, Ruta Sepetys, founder/owner of a Nashville, Tenn.-based artist-management company, has helped singers and songwriters tell their stories to the world. Then one day, one of them asked her: "So, what's YOUR story?"

"I thought about it, and my first thought was panic," Sepetys said in a recent interview. "I thought, 'Do I have a story? What is my story?' "

It turns out that Sepetys — through her extended family in Lithuania — actually had an incredible story to tell, a story that few Americans have heard and which millions in Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia were afraid to tell for many years because of fear of execution.

Sepetys' story is the basis for her debut novel, "Between Shades of Gray" (Philomel, $17.99, ages 12 up), which details the efforts by a strong-willed, middle-class Lithuanian teen named Lina and her family to survive the harsh reality of suddenly being deported to a prison camp in Siberia in 1941.

Heartbreaking, searing and lyrically written, "Between Shades of Gray" is a novel that is both challenging to read without weeping, and impossible to forget — especially when readers realize that Sepetys based her book on firsthand accounts from Lithuanian survivors of the Siberian camps. Overall, readers will finish the book with a strong sense of hope, as well as a desire to ensure that such things never happen again.

"Writing the book put me through the emotional wringer," Sepetys acknowledged.

Sepetys stumbled across the story that eventually became "Between Shades of Gray" when she visited Lithuanian relatives in 2005. She asked if they had any photographs of her father and grandfather, who had fled to Germany and then the United States during the World War II crackdown by Soviet leader Josef Stalin.

"When I asked that, there was silence," Sepetys recalled. Then she learned that, after her father and grandfather had left Lithuania, other family members had been branded as enemies of the state and sent to Soviet prison camps.

It was part of an effort by Stalin to absorb the former Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia into the Soviet Union. Many citizens of those countries were sent to prison camps, and those left behind quickly learned to keep silent to avoid punishment or even execution.

Sepetys was stunned to learn that 20 million people were killed under Stalin's regime. Yet, unlike the well-documented Holocaust under Nazi leader Adolf Hitler — the systematic, bureaucratic murder of approximately 6 million Jews — few people elsewhere knew much about Stalin's genocide until the 1990s, when the Soviet Union broke apart and countries like Lithuania gained their independence.

Sepetys knew it was a story that she needed to tell. Because of the still-palpable fear of the Lithuanians with whom she spoke, however, Sepetys decided that she needed to write a novel, rather than a nonfiction volume, as a way of making people more willing to talk with her.

With that decision, Sepetys gained people's trust, "and I was sent from one person's house to the next person's house,"she said.

To tell the story, Sepetys interviewed dozens of people, spent time in a train car that once had carried Lithuanians to Siberia and even participated in an experiment in a Soviet prison where she experienced the kind of brutal treatment she writes about in "Between Shades of Gray."

That experiment "gave me such a profound respect for the people who survived these camps, and who even risked their lives for people they didn't even know,"Sepetys said.

While Sepetys clearly details the harshness of the prison camps, she also illuminates the unquenchable hope of many prisoners. As one former prisoner told Sepetys: "When you are exposed to an experience so horrific, something inside of you dies. But, in some people, something is reborn in that place. ... They've (the Soviets) took so much of our lives; if we had given them our spirits, we would have lost everything."

Sepetys has clearly struck a chord with her novel, which has won stellar reviews from critics and readers; foreign rights have been sold in 22 countries. Even more importantly, "Between Shades of Gray" has convinced many other Soviet-prison-camp survivors to get in touch with Sepetys to finally tell their stories.

Sepetys hopes to convince her publisher to use these stories in a nonfiction companion to "Between Shades of Gray." Meanwhile, she's working on her second book, a novel set in New Orleans in the 1950s.

"I really want to write a lot of books,"Sepetys said. "But if I never publish another book, I'm glad that people will know me for 'Between Shades of Gray.' "

Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.

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