Cover-to-Cover: “Between Shades of Gray” by Ruta Sepetys

Sometimes, all it takes to draw me to a book is beautifully imagined cover art.

This was the case with Ruta Sepetys' "Between Shades of Gray." The title, you may have noticed, bears a striking similarity to a set of books in an altogether different genre (and one that falls outside of my reading taste).

I might have missed out on Sepetys' mesmerizing, heartbreaking, and beautiful (inside and out) novel had I not been drawn in by the cover while on a Sunday afternoon stroll through Barnes and Noble. The book had been previously unknown to me, so the cover, which features a close-up of a closed eye, long lashes half buried in clumps of snow, was my first contact with the book and its story.

Upon pausing to inspect, I noticed the subtitle: "One girl's voice breaks the silence of history." Clearly, this book had no relation to those other ones, and it spoke to my preoccupations as a reader (namely, World War II history).

The novel follows Lina, beginning in June of 1941 when she is a 15-year old Lithuanian student looking forward to a summer studying art. But her life is changed forever, and her family torn apart, when Soviet officers storm into her home and arrest Lina, her younger brother, and their mother. Loaded into cattle cars, the family, separated from Lina's father, is sent through Belarus to Russia, through the Ural Mountains to Siberia, and across the Arctic Circle to the North Pole.

The story, which is based in part on survivor stories, is about enduring the unendurable, about hope and survival, about the sacrifices we make for the ones we love, and the power of art and story. It also sheds light, as the subtitle implies, on a neglected corner of history—the Soviet purges of the Baltic countries and their devastating consequences. Sepetys' hypnotic prose, beautifully drawn characters, and heartrending narrative cast a spell on me, and once I began reading it, the novel was impossible to put down.

And it all began with the cover. Of course a book holds readers on the merits of its characters and setting, its plot and pacing, on the quality of its prose. But the cover can be a point of entry.

With this in mind, I've been noticing covers, how they relate to the stories they visualize, how the hardback differs from the paperback, how the US cover differs from the UK edition of the same book.

In the case of Sepetys' book, the cover that pulled me in was for the paperback edition. The hardcover, which I saw on the Penguin website, illustrates a snowy landscape framed by barbed wire with a fragile leaf growing, improbably, out of the snow, and there is no subtitle. The cover featured on Penguin's UK site has the snowy landscape but features a slight female figure, facing away from the viewer, hands in her pockets and wind whipping through her hair, behind a barbed wire fence. A question above the title reads, "Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth?"

Each cover illuminates a slightly different aspect of the story, like a crystal refracting shards of light, but all are arresting.

I'm curious to hear from other readers: What covers have spoken to you and invited you to pick up a book you might otherwise have missed?


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