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.”