The tapestry of world history is scarred with mass expulsions, forced migrations, ethnic cleansings, and the kind of genocide that starts with someone saying, “You’re no longer welcome here.” It’s hard to keep track of so many tragedies. Chances are, you still haven’t heard of them all.
After Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were absorbed into the USSR during World War II, communist dictator Josef Stalin began making his notorious lists of individuals from those former Baltic republics — including some entire families — whom he deemed “anti-Soviet.” Military leaders, doctors, lawyers, business proprietors, teachers, librarians, priests — even children — whose names were put onto these lists faced almost certain doom.
“Between 1940 and 1953, the Soviets imprisoned and deported over 300,000 Lithuanians. They were shipped via cattle car across Europe into Asia to die in the forests of Siberia. My family members were among them,” noted Ruta Sepetys, whose debut novel Between Shades of Gray recaptures those dark days. Inspired by her own father’s childhood experiences, it’s the tale of a Lithuanian teen deported over the Arctic Circle to Siberia in 1941.
“The atrocities of Hitler and the Nazis are well-known,” Sepetys pointed out. “But many people don’t know that Josef Stalin killed over twenty million people during his reign of terror.” During that period, Lithuania lost over a third of its population.
Sepetys “cried buckets of tears while writing the book, and still cry when I read certain scenes.”
During two research trips overseas, she interviewed her own relatives as well as other surviving deportees, former gulag inmates, psychologists, historians, and government officials. Survivors told her they’d had to burn all photographs of — and deny even knowing — adored relatives whom Stalin sentenced to death. “The experience was life-altering,” said the author, who will be at A Great Good Place for Books (6120 La Salle Ave., Oakland) on Saturday, April 9.
Her research for what she calls “a story of extreme suffering and tremendous hope” found Sepetys spending time in a cattle car that was used in the deportation, and participating in an “extreme simulation experiment” that involved being locked in a former Soviet prison. “Let’s just say the experience left me certain that I never would have survived the deportations,” she said.
Her book’s protagonist shows far more mettle: Torn away by Stalin’s orders from a happy whirlwind of first crushes and art-school applications, fifteen-year-old Lina draws pictures of her bleak new Siberian surroundings, sends messages to her beloved father, and digs beets out of the frozen earth.
Meeting her relatives in Lithuania and learning about their tragic pasts, “I was shocked,” Sepetys said. “But I knew that my family’s history was not unique. There are millions of people whose lives were taken or affected during the Soviet occupation. Yet very few people knew the story. I wanted to write a novel to honor the people of the Baltics and also to illustrate the power of love and patriotism.” 7 p.m., free. 510-339-8210 or GGPBooks.com