Ruta Sepetys and Courage at the Testing Point
There’s a quote by C S Lewis that has fascinated me for years, partly because I’m never quite sure I understand it, and partly because at other times, I’m certain I do:
‘Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.’
I was lucky enough to be invited to an event at the Lithuanian embassy with Ruta Sepetys, the author of the book ‘Between Shades of Grey‘ (not to be confused with the dodgy Twilight fanfic) – somehow representing the book-blogging world even though I’m not technically even a book blogger (just a blogger obsessed with books…and sometimes not even that). Between Shades of Grey is a historical fiction, set in 1941 Lithuania under Stalin, the story of 15-year-old Lina Vilkas during the mass deportation of people from the Baltic states (Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania) to Siberia. It is based on the firsthand accounts of survivors, and is a story that was, at the time of publication, practically untold in the English language. Which is strange and disturbing all at once, especially considering how much we have about the Holocaust.
Ruta is an engaging speaker – funny and self-deprecating. She told us about how in the course of her research, she took part in an immersion experience in an abandoned Soviet prison (reminding me of the famous prison experiments), and how brutal – and brutalising – it was both physically and emotionally. It was difficult listening to her speak about how the situation eroded her sense of her own humanity, even in that short time, her shame when a fellow prisoner in worse condition helped her, and finally the quiet admission, ‘I discovered I was a coward.’
But despite how she would have you think that, I can’t help believing it takes some kind of courage to stand in front of a roomful of people and admit it to them. The courage of the tiger is one, and of the horse another, is it not? Plus tigers are almost extinct.
In a book like this, there is so much to think about, and not much to enjoy. There are big questions like identity and morality to struggle with, and it is a desperately exhausting read emotionally. But it’s important to do. I keep thinking of Anne Frank’s haunting line, ‘I want to go on living, even after my death’, and how devastated I was by her death, so many years after the fact. Two sides of the same war, and somehow the brutal inhumanity is the same – but so is the kindness of one’s fellows. And that is what Ruta wants us to take away: hope.
A few really lovely people came up to me to tell me how happy they were that this book – this book that was about who they were and what they had been through – had crossed all the boundaries of race and geography and beliefs, and became this experience that was universal enough for everyone to find themselves in (I was there looking very un-Lithuanian and very un-English!). But what was also important to them was that no matter how universally it could be taken, Lithuanians should not be forgotten or lost in that universality. Lithuanian voices want to be heard.
Read more about Ruta and Between Shades of Grey here.
As a final note, I think it’s important to remember that for every story told, there are a thousand more untold. Wars and holocausts aren’t as buried in history as we like to think. They are now. We need to show courage now. We need to be able to stand against injustice and atrocities as they happen, not seventy years after the fact. Look around you.