Ashes in the Snow (originally titled Between Shades of Grey) by Ruta Sepetys is a young adult historical fiction novel about 15 year old Lina living in Lithuania in the 1930’s; she lives with her younger brother, Jonas, and their parents. She is very intelligent, inquisitive and helpful; her father is a professor and sometimes hosts colleagues and friends after dinner. The men would sit around talking about current events and politics, and sometimes Lina would eavesdrop on their conversations. There are concerns regarding the Nazi’s rise to power in Germany, their advancing crusade across eastern Europe, the maltreatment and murder of Jews, and Russia’s so-called, pseudo-alliance with them. Lina begins to notice small differences in their routine and the conversations her father and his friends would have. One day she notices her mother sewing pockets on the inside of her coat to conceal valuables, she does not go out as often as she used to and the hushed conversations she would have with her husband.
One day Lina’s father doesn’t come home at his usual hour, but her mother tries not to show any worry. As they are getting ready for bed, Lina can’t shake a feeling of dread and thinks about her father and her cousin who she considers a best friend. After the lights are out and they are in bed, there is a loud banging on the door and Russian soldiers on the opposite side yelling commands. Luckily, Lina’s mother speaks a little Russian, so she calmly communicates with them and relays instructions to the kids. She tells Lina and Jonas to each pack one bag with clothing. Lina packs some clothes, a sketchbook and pencil, and a book to read; Jonas packs some clothes and a framed photo of their father. The Russian soldiers were yelling at them to hurry, scaring Lina and Jonas, but their mother remains calm and tells the Russians that they are ready to leave. Lina’s mother works hard to make sure the family stays together and is usually a calm voice of reason.
They end up in a crowded cattle car heading away from Lithuania. It’s freezing cold outside, they haven’t heard from, heard about or seen their father since the night they were forced from their home. In the car they are in, they meet a young mother and her 17-year old son, Andrius. The two mothers become friends quickly and the kids get along well – Jonas looks up to Andrius and Andrius takes Jonas under his wing. When the train car comes to a stop at a station so the passengers can use the restroom, Lina notices there are other train cars around like theirs and wants to see if she can find her father or get some information about him. Andrius is looking for his father too; by the third train car they find Lina’s dad who is ok, but doesn’t know where they’re headed. He tells Lina to be strong and to take care of Jonas and her mother. They were not able to find Andrius’ dad and Lina tries to help Andrius not get discouraged. Andrius tells Lina and Jonas to head back to their car so they don’t get left behind or caught while he continues to check the other train cars.
On their way back to the car, they almost get caught by Russian soldiers; luckily, both Lina and Jonas make it back without incident, but Andrius gets caught and is beaten up pretty badly. His mother is concerned and pleads with Andrius not to do anything foolish and to be careful. Lina, his mother, and her mom all take turns helping and caring for Andrius. The train continues on and on into colder temperatures and further away from Lithuania. Lina sketches sometimes as a way of remembering what they’ve been through and thinks she can use it as a way to get information to her father. After a long journey in the cramped car they arrive at a camp with many other Lithuanians, some Poles and some other nationalities; the camp has barrack-style housing that is filled with bunk beds and packed with people. Lina and Jonas’ mother has to bribe the woman in the barracks for a bunk for her and the children. This upsets Lina since they need all of the items they can get their hands on in case they need to get information about their father. Lina’s mother calmly explains why she did it and after some time, Lina calms down.
Boys were idiots. They were all idiots.Lina Vilkas, pg. 162
Conditions in the sleeping quarters of the camp are not much better than in the cattle cars. There is no heat, running water and very little food. Lina and her family quickly learn that they’re expected to do their assigned job or task to earn their food each day, that you can’t get someone else’s meal if they’re unable to work that day and that some people work with the Russians to receive better work assignments, extra food rations and other benefits. Lina is only able to sketch once in a while and mails them to her father less frequently. She faces many challenges from the time she’s snatched from her home to the moment they are liberated. The story follows Lina through her time at the labor camp in Siberia – we also hear the stories of so many others at the camp as Lina and her family interact with them. The story is compelling, engaging, horrifying, and inspiring – another example of a strong willpower and desire to live.
I loved this book – it’s a fabulous story of survival. Lina and Jonas are my two favorite characters followed closely by Andrius. All of them have to grow up faster than they normally would have, they miss out on the opportunity to have completely normal childhood, and all of them handle the tragic loss of loved ones and illness as best they can for their age. They stick together through it all and offer each other strength and encouragement when they need it. The author does a great job with the story – I enjoyed this story as much as I enjoyed her other novel, Salt to the Sea. I recommend both books to any readers who love historical fiction novels and readers who prefer to read young adult novels. I purchased my paperback copy at a used bookstore for $5; if you don’t live near a used bookstore and don’t wish to buy it at full price, I recommend checking your local library’s catalog to see if they have an available copy you can borrow. If you would rather purchase your own copy of the book, the paperback is available at Barnes & Noble for $9.99.
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