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Some readers picked up “Between Shades of Gray” expecting to read a steamy romance novel, but instead they stumbled upon an emo­tional story of Lithuanian refugees that history forgot.

Hillsdale alumnae Ruta Sepetys ’90, author of The New York Times best selling his­torical fiction novel, edu­cated readers on the Baltic genocide with stories and expe­ri­ences that have never been told.

“The con­fusion in the title was actually a pos­itive,” Sepetys laughed. “Even though my novel came out first, many readers picked it up by accident and ended up writing me saying how glad they were! Not many people have heard of this chapter in history.”

Ruta Sepetys grad­uated from Hillsdale College with a degree in inter­na­tional finance and French. She was a member of Chi Omega women’s fra­ternity, was active in the music depart­ments vocal program, and studied abroad in France.

“At the time Ruta was enrolled at Hillsdale, the French department had an internship program in con­junction with Indiana Uni­versity of Penn­syl­vania,” Pro­fessor Ellen Justice-Tem­pleton explained. “We sent only our very best stu­dents to it, and Ruta’s excel­lence in her studies made her our top can­didate. She came home vir­tually fluent in French.”

After grad­u­ation she moved to Los Angeles to work in the music industry, and then in the 2000s started her own pro­duction company in Nashville. In 2005, a musician she worked with invited Sepetys to tag along on a trip to Lithuania.

“My father was a Lithuanian refugee, and I never truly under­stood his story until I went over there,” Sepetys said. “I got to talk to go to where my family history began, and I found some­thing I never would have expected. I found a tragedy that these sur­vivors didn’t have the courage to tell.”

Thou­sands of Lithua­nians were slaugh­tered, placed into con­cen­tration camps and forced into exile in Siberia. There were more than 196,000 Lithuanian Jews mur­dered and history hardly remembered.

After talking to many sur­vivors, Sepetys realized she needed to write their story. She began writing in 2005 and helped give a voice to many who have never spoke of this tragedy. Many of the sur­vivors she inter­viewed wished to remain anonymous, but their per­sonal stories and details were embodied in her characters.

“The research changed my life,” Sepetys said. “Imagine being able to interview someone who has had to bear the unbearable. They taught me that suf­fering can be a spir­itual teacher. They thought the world had for­gotten them, and though many were not ready for the pain, emotion, and fear they would encounter while dis­cussing their history, they told their nar­rative because they were inspired that the world would finally know their story.”

She under­stood that some readers view history as boring, so cre­ating char­acters that brought these themes to life was crucial in com­mu­ni­cating Baltic history.

“As a his­torical fiction writer, it is my job to create an appetite for further infor­mation, to ask a question without nec­es­sarily pro­viding an answer. Good lit­er­ature should create that curiosity,” Sepetys said.

It was in her research that Sepetys realized that she had stumbled upon some­thing truly special and had also found the perfect title.

“I thought I under­stood this con­flict, who was bad and who was good,” Sepetys said. “Then I realized that things weren’t cat­e­go­rized in extremes, things were not just black and white, but there were shades of gray. Between those shades of gray is where the truth lies.”

“Between Shades of Gray” was pub­lished in 2011 and earned numerous acco­lades. In addition to winning countless national and inter­na­tional awards, it was rec­og­nized as a New York Times best­seller and it has been trans­lated into 27 lan­guages. The Los Angeles Times called it, “Heart-wrenching… A story of hardship as well as human triumph, Between Shades of Gray is an eye-opening reimag­i­nation of a very real tragedy written with grace and heart.”

“Global read­ership truly tells you what your book is,” Sepetys said. “In America it is a story of courage, in France it is a message about identity, and in Spain it is a theme of patri­otism. It con­tains a message for everyone.”

In March of 2013 Sepetys explained her message to global leaders on a political stage. She became the first author of young adult lit­er­ature to ever speak in front of European par­liament. She dis­cussed the history of total­i­tar­i­anism in the Baltic, and the impor­tance of his­torical fiction for upcoming gen­er­a­tions. For many of the leaders in that room, it was their first time hearing of the Baltic genocide, and after her speech fellow global leaders were able to relate to Lithuanian in a much deeper sense.

Later that June, Sepetys was awarded Lithuania’s Cross of the Knight of the Order. The honor was bestowed by the pres­ident of Lithuania for her con­tri­bu­tions to edu­cation and culture in con­junction with her global efforts.

Throughout the noto­riety and praise, Sepetys stays incredibly humble and deeply pas­sionate about her role as an author. She has also just recently written another book titled “Out Of The Easy” a story of a young girl in New Orleans during the 1950s.

“I wrote the book, but history wrote the story,” Sepetys said. “History holds secrets, and I get to tell them.”

 

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Thomas Novelly
Collegian Editor-in-Chief, Thomas Novelly was born in Novi, Michigan, but was raised in Franklin, Tennessee, making him a self-proclaimed "Yankee gone South." Thomas began writing for The Collegian as a sophomore, and since has served as a reporter, columnist, and Assistant City News Editor. He has also worked for two major publications, interning at the Washington Free Beacon in D.C. and The Tennessean in Nashville. His work has been seen in National publications such as CBS News, National Review Online, Stars And Stripes, and USA Today. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.