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Between Shades of Gray - Brentwood womans visit with family leads to book

When Brentwood resident Ruta Sepetys decided to visit family in Lithuania seven years ago, she had no idea it would lead to a career change – her first novel “Between Shades of Gray.”

The story outlines the struggles of a Lithuanian family ripped apart during the 1940s when the country went from being occupied by Germany to being occupied by the Soviet Union during the reign of Josef Stalin. It focus on a 16-year old girl who is preparing for art school when the nightmare begins with Russian police storming their home and putting them on a train to Siberia.

Through fear, deportation and extermination Stalin cleanses the Baltic States of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia of their best and brightest to bring them under the communist tent of the USSR.

Overshadowed by Hitler’s Holocaust, much of Stalin’s gulags and reign of terror went virtually unnoticed, unknown and unrecorded until recently.

“History holds secrets; they can be exciting and they can be terrifying,” Sepetys said.

She learned about the terror on her visit to Lithuania. She knew some of her family’s history, but while talking to those long-lost family members, she learned the missing links. Putting them together, Sepetys found she was putting together pieces of history –her history intertwined in those pieces.

At 14, her father came to the United States with his parents in 1949 as part of the 10,000 “Displaced Persons,” (DPs) immigrating to five countries that agreed to accept them. Her grandfather, a high-ranking officer in the Lithuanian military, fled their homeland to Germany in 1940 when her father, George was just 4-years old. The family they left behind thought they had been executed.

“That’s why we have no pictures of him as a child,” she said.

While her father and grandparents lived in refugee camps in Germany and Austria for nine years before going to the United States, the family left behind in Lithuania tells a much different story.

“They settled in Detroit and after that point, they lived the American Dream,” Sepetys said of her grandparents.

Her grandfather got a job with Ford Motor Company and when her father grew up he started his own graphic design business.

As the author began questioning her relatives, stories that have remained untold for more than 60 years began to flow.

“Grandfather’s family didn’t know he escaped – they thought he was executed,” she said. “It wasn’t until 1954 they found out he was in the United States. The [Lithuanian] family was deported [to Siberia] by association [in 1944].”

They didn’t return to their homeland until 1958. Historical fiction is a lot like being a detective, she added.

To this day, those who survived are afraid to talk about their experiences – the deprivation, the deplorable living conditions, the loss of life and everything they owned and the humiliation when they were allowed to return home – they were considered convicts. She quickly realized she had to be careful how she asked questions so as not to make them feel like they were under interrogation.

“The fear of Stalin hangs over them like a cold shadow – you see them trembling still when they speak, although they wanted their story told. They said, ‘The world has forgotten us.’ I decided I was going to give this everything. Many of these people are in their 80s, I was not going to lose this story.”

She promised to change the story she thought she was going to write – her family’s story – and make it fiction, “To honor their request for anonymity.” 

“These survivors told me stories about things happening that were so incredible or heart-breaking, I decided I had to wrap fictional characters around their stories,” she said.

They still suffer from intense survival guilt and grief – they don’t understand why they survived and millions didn’t.

“They are constantly searching for meaning in their life.”

Secrets can be destructive, she added.

Although names and details are changed, “Between Shades of Gray” relates stories told by people in the little country in Eastern Europe that was swallowed up by the Soviet Block and disappeared from all maps in 1941 reappearing in 1990 after the fall of the Soviet Union.

A graduate of Hillsdale College, Sepetys built a thriving career as an artist manager in the California music industry.

“I helped them tell stories through music,” she said.

She moved her business to Music City in 2002 to be closer to her brother.

“All the freedoms I have come from my father’s family,” Sepetys said.

Since her trip, her career changed. She is still helping others tell their stories, but she is doing the writing.

Nominated for Carnegie Medal, “Between Shades of Gray” was named a New York Times Notable Book and was recognized by the Wall Street Journal. 

Locally it can be found at Parnassus Book Store in Green Hills, Barnes and Noble and online. It is also available on Kindle and the Nook.

Watch for Sepetys’ second book, Out of the Easy, which will debut Feb. 12, 2013. Set in New Orleans’ French Quarter, it is the story of a young girl trying to escape the French Quarter – “Learning to fly when she was born with broken wings.”

Posted on: 9/20/2012


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