Robin Shulman is a journalist and author of the book, “Eat the City.”
For many Americans, some wars — though long ago and far away — endure, affecting their daily lives. Inara Verzemnieks’s searing memoir, “Among the Living and the Dead,” shows how.
Verzemnieks grew up in Tacoma, Wash., where she was raised by her grandmother, Livija, a World War II refugee. Five years after Livija died, Verzemnieks visited the village in the Latvian countryside where her grandmother was born. All through Verzemnieks’s childhood, Livija’s stories had framed a lost, prewar, rural Latvian world. On her trip to Livija’s home, Verzemnieks set out to experience, as Rebecca West put it, “what history meant in flesh and blood.”
So she delves into the past of one of those small countries that has for centuries been invaded and traded by larger powers. Latvians have fled the armies of Vikings, a Swedish king, kaisers, czars and czarinas, the general secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, and the Führer. In 1944, as tanks chewed up the streets, bombs fell every night and families disappeared into the forest, Livija fled with her 2-year-old daughter and her infant son, someday to become Verzemnieks’s father.
Inara Verzemnieks inherited exile, she says, as surely as she inherited nearsightedness. Her father fought in Vietnam and wasn’t right afterward. Her mother was physically abusive. At age 2, Verzemnieks went to live with her paternal grandparents, who were doing their best to re-create Latvia in Tacoma.
They took her to church with elderly, war-scarred Latvians to sing old Latvian hymns the congregants had handwritten and photocopied. When one of them died, the others gathered by the coffin to scatter soil someone had smuggled out of communist Latvia. The youngest congregant by 60 years, Verzemnieks felt a clear responsibility. “It was like a silent command running behind everything we did,” she writes: “watch, listen, remember.”
Verzemnieks attended a summer camp where the cabins were replicas of the old wooden houses of the Latvian countryside. The counselors organized forest walks where the campers would enact fairy tales and pagan myths, encountering costumed devils and witches they’d dispatch by reciting the proper poem. In Nikes and bug spray, they sang “a sad, slow folk song begging the wind to carry us back to the shores in Latvia.”
And every day, Livija told stories.
A young child raised by an elderly person can become steeped in the places, people and customs of a time before her own. In Verzemnieks’s case, the phenomenon was amplified by her grandmother’s evocative narration of life on the lost Latvian farm, “like someone who believed that the structure of it could be protected, even saved, through her telling.” As a child, Verzemnieks learned every piece of that bucolic landscape: “the anthills and badger burrows,” the mosquitoes and horseflies that “blackened the summer air,” the “stump that turned wet with hens’ blood after the thwack of the axe upon their necks,” and the wood-burning stove “so hot it would cause the flesh of a curious child’s hand to slide off like the skin of a snake.” So a child growing up in Washington state grows up, at the same time, on a farm in Latvia, haunted by events that took place half a century prior.
Of course one exile’s memory of a place is different from present-day reality or even the memories of those who stayed put. When Verzemnieks actually goes to the farm, her grandmother’s sister tells her: “Your grandmother’s stories aren’t my stories.” Verzemnieks is afraid that there might be no way to make “the pieces of the past fit together in any kind of way to return it to something whole.”
And that is the essential project of this book: a restoration effort. As Verzemnieks attempts to live among family and come as close as possible to her grandmother’s experience, life is affirmed by her intimate, physical interaction with plants, animals, people, place. “And with each new day, a little more of what had seemed lost finds its way back to me,” she writes.
Much that was lost cannot come back. Tens of thousands died in the war, many of them Jewish. “Volunteers” killed the Jews of Verzemnieks’s ancestral village and dumped them in a mass grave. After the war, thousands disappeared forever into Soviet prison camps. Verzemnieks wonders if her grandfather’s postwar drift inside himself is driven by his own sense of culpability for atrocity.
The book often has a dreamy quality of reverie or incantation, as Verzemnieks — who teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Iowa — reconstructs, imagines and inhabits other people’s memories and accounts of war and flight. It requires a kind of attention that can be difficult to sustain, despite the beauty on almost every page.
But this book is important. We are now experiencing another global refugee crisis. “Among the Living and the Dead” shows the consequences of being forced from home — how that loss is passed through the generations, as children and grandchildren struggle to build their lives. Perhaps today’s Verzemniekses will spend enough time on WhatsApp with their cousins back home that the stories of a distant place will not develop the same mysterious, magnetic pull — perhaps not. One way or another, the stories will be transmitted.
At its most basic, war breaks connections. This exquisitely written book shows how recovery can come generations later through rebuilding connections — to people, the natural world, the past.
By Inara Verzemnieks
Norton. 288 pp. $26.95