The author of a New York Times best-selling novel gave a lecture on Amarillo College’s Washington Street campus Oct. 29. Ruta Sepetys is the author of AC’s 2015 Common Reader, Between Shades of Gray. The book tells the story of 15-year-old Lina Vilkas, a Lithuanian artist who is arrested with her mother and younger brother and deported to a death camp in Siberia while her father is arrested separately and sent to a gulag. The story not only chronicles Lina’s fight to survive, it chronicles her fight to retain faith in mankind during the horrors of Joseph Stalin’s reign. At the lecture, Sepetys described how she went on a trip to Lithuania to see her distant family. She asked her family members if they had any photos from her father’s childhood, and they said, “You don’t know, do you?” The family members revealed the hidden history behind her immediate family’s immigration to America. Sepetys’ grandfather was an officer in the Lithuanian military when, in 1940, Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union, occupied Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. In order to fully occupy those countries, the Soviets had to get rid of those nations’ military forces. Sepetys’ grandfather was a high-ranking officer in the Lithuanian military. He was not on the list for deportation; he was on the list for execution with the rest of his family, Sepetys’ grandmother and father. Sepetys said her grandmother had taken her raincoat and had torn out the lining and sewn in the family’s valuables: silver, jewelry, money and the deeds to the property – knowing she was going to be on the list for deportation. One day a friend knocked at their door and said to Sepetys’s grandfather, “I owe you a favor; this is your favor. They (the Soviet secret police are) 20 minutes behind me. You have to flee.” Sepetys’ family fled. Her father never saw his home again. On foot, her family fled through Poland into Austria and finally into Germany. When they arrived in Germany, they had no place to go and ended up in refugee camps. In 1950, they came to the United States and started a new life. In the middle of the lecture, Sepetys said while she was doing a radio interview in Italy about Between Shades of Gray, an elderly man called in and said, “I think it’s super irresponsible to give these books to students. I think we should just forget history.” The comment shocked and horrified Sepetys. She did not know how to respond. A week later, she went to a middle school assembly and a seventh grader asked her if she had ever been asked a question she could not answer. Sepetys told the student about the Italian man who remarked on the need to forget history. A girl in the audience raised her hand and said, “Helen Keller once said, ‘How are we to learn lessons of patience and courage, if all we ever know is joy?’”
While writing Between Shades of Gray, Sepetys interviewed a number of Lithuanian survivors. “These people were terrified of me,” Sepetys said. “A Lithuanian-American woman, asking them questions about things they have had to kept secret. Imagine keeping a secret for 50 years. Imagine the trauma that comes out when you start telling about the horrors that you experienced.” Near the end of the lecture, Sepetys discussed a time when she was interviewing a survivor who told her, “You are going to write your book, but I have to warn you, no one will publish it.” “Why do you think that?” Sepetys asked, and the survivor replied, “You have to accept that the world has forgotten us.” Sepetys said she felt inspired by the desire to make sure the Lithuanian survivors and the suffering they endured would not be forgotten. The drive to tell their forgotten story motivated her to continue writing Between Shades of Gray. Story gives us a framework to understand ourselves and our surroundings, Sepetys said. She challenged the audience members to find their own stories and share them with the world.