(p. 8) In an episode near the end of her thoughtful and eloquent memoir, “Among the Living and the Dead,” Inara Verzemnieks accompanies a cousin on her mail route in rural Latvia. They stop at a crude mailbox nailed to a tree. The mailbox belongs to an old woman who has elected to live alone, deep in the forest. Verzemnieks is drawn to the mystery of this woman and imagines seeking her out to pose the question that infuses her book: “How to live with this hurt?”
. . .
. . . the hurt Verzemnieks refers to is not directly her own; rather it is something she has imbibed and inherited from the paternal grandparents who raised her, ethnic Latvians who settled in America after World War II. It is the pain of their exile, the yearning for family left behind and the burden of memories from the war itself — her grandmother’s long, perilous flight across Europe from the Soviet forces, and her grandfather’s service as a conscript for the German Army, about which he does not speak.
. . .
Her family’s true home was in the region of Gulbene, in the northeast of Latvia, not far from the Russian border. More specifically, it was at her grandmother’s ancestral homestead, called Lembi. When the Soviet Union collapsed, her grandparents succeeded in returning once. After they died, Verzemnieks went as well, spending parts of five consecutive years living with her grandmother’s younger sister, Ausma, one of the last surviving members of her grandparents’ generation. The book interleaves stories from her grandparents’ past and from Ausma’s, along with Verzemnieks’s impressions of life in present-day rural Latvia, governed by its traditional rhythms, intricately and spiritually fused with the natural world. She is there to experience this life, to connect with her family, but also to gain Ausma’s trust so as to elicit her story. That story is the complement to her grandparents’, the two together constituting the Latvian national wartime narrative: those who suffered the pain of leaving and those subjected to the pain of staying — which meant life under the Soviet yoke, collectivization and, often, expulsion to Siberia. Ausma shared this fate. In 1949, she, her mother and her invalid brother were stripped of their beloved farm and sent into the taiga. They survived largely because Ausma withstood grueling physical labor and dreadful privation. For her great-niece’s sake, she recounts this past, even though it often brings her to tears.
For the full review, see:
DAVID BEZMOZGIS. “Homeland.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, September 17, 2017): 8.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date SEPT. 15, 2017, and has the title “A Writer Visits Latvia in Search of Her Roots.”)
The book under review, is:
Verzemnieks, Inara. Among the Living and the Dead: A Tale of Exile and Homecoming on the War Roads of Europe. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017.