Grand­daugh­ter ex­plores a lost way of life and an in­her­i­tance of ex­ile

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Robin Shul­man is a jour­nal­ist and au­thor of the book “Eat the City.” RE­VIEW BY ROBIN SHUL­MAN

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.


The Red Army moves into Latvia in June 1940, dur­ing World War II. Soon after­ward, the coun­try be­came part of the Soviet Union.

AMONG THE LIV­ING AND THE DEAD A Tale of Ex­ile and Home­com­ing on the War Roads of Europe By Inara Verzem­nieks Nor­ton. 288 pp. $26.95

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