Students heard how finding out about her Lithuanian family’s enforced deportation to the Siberian labour camps led Ruta Sepetys to write her first novel. Ruta, whose father’s family fled to America, was adult by the time she realised that the relatives left behind had been transported to the Russian gulags during Stalin’s cleansing of the Baltic regions.
She undertook painstaking research for her book ‘Between Shades of Grey’, talking to survivors, psychologists, historians and government officials. She also spent a harrowing time in a prison cell and was locked into a train carriage that had been used to transport people to the camps. It was emblazoned on the outside with ‘Thieves and Prostitutes,’ the government propaganda that became the title of the book’s first chapter.
Rutya wrote: ‘Between 1940 – 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. In total, Lithuania lost over a third of its population during the Soviet reign of terror.
‘Fifteen-year old Lina Vilakas is arrested by the Soviet secret police and deported to Siberia with her mother and younger brother. Her father is sentenced to death in a Soviet prison camp. Lina fights for her life, vowing that if she survives she will honour her family and the thousands like hers by burying her complete story in a jar on Lithuanian soil. Lina’s writings chronicle her experience, her struggle to accept help from a kind Soviet guard she’s supposed to hate, and retain her dignity without losing all faith in mankind.’
Students from Brooke Weston joined with others from Lodge Park at Corby Business Academy to hear Ruta speak about her roots and how she wrote the best-seller, that was recently shortlisted for the Carnegie award. She spoke to a large group in the lecture theatre before our students joined the book group from CBA for a more informal discussion.
Librarian Mrs Adams said: ‘Ruta worked on computer games, film scripts and lived in Hollywood for a while. The idea for the book was triggered when she was interviewing someone for film purposes and was asking about their background. The guy then asked her ‘What is your story?’ She knew the basics but then decided to find out more and was really shocked.
‘When she researched it the older people and the young kids died. The more she talked to people she found out it was the teenagers that survived and made it through. Lina was possibly modelled on her cousin, the only one of her family who survived the experience. Everything in the book is based on true accounts, which is what makes it absolutely harrowing, but also a story that must be told.’