STARRED REVIEW
July 2017

An ode to grief and resilience

By Inara Verzemnieks
Review by

In old Latvia, Inara Verzemnieks tells us, people believed that the dead returned home once a year to see how everyone was doing. The living couldn’t see them, but they felt their presence, maybe even talked to them. It was a source of great comfort.

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In old Latvia, Inara Verzemnieks tells us, people believed that the dead returned home once a year to see how everyone was doing. The living couldn’t see them, but they felt their presence, maybe even talked to them. It was a source of great comfort.

After decades of upheaval and migration, the traditional beliefs have gone underground. But Verzemnieks, the Latvian-American granddaughter of a refugee, understands their value and finds her own comfort through the personal journey she recounts in Among the Living and the Dead.

Verzemnieks’ grandmother Livija fled Riga, Latvia, with her two children during World War II, making her way to a displaced persons camp in Germany. She was joined there by her war-wounded husband. After much struggle, they were resettled in the United States. As the family adjusted, Livija’s relatives overseas in Latvia were undergoing their own torment: They were exiled by the Soviets to Siberia for years, returning only to find that they had lost their ancestral farm.

Verzemnieks was raised largely by her beloved grandparents, who existed somewhere between the U.S. and their memories of rural childhoods. After her grandmother’s death, Verzemnieks visited Livija’s sister in the old village in an attempt to unravel family mysteries.

Verzemnieks is an exquisite writer who weaves together tales of old Latvia and her own discoveries in lyrical prose. Slowly, carefully, she coaxes her great-aunt into talking about Siberia. She learns more about her grandparents, though troubling uncertainties remain.

Her descriptions of the years on the “war roads” and in the displaced persons camps are particularly heartbreaking. It becomes evident that her father, outwardly a successful professional, was permanently affected by an early childhood of deprivation and fear. But the revelations also bring understanding. The dead and the living mingle and reconnect.

 

This article was originally published in the July 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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Among the Living and the Dead

Among the Living and the Dead

By Inara Verzemnieks
Norton
ISBN 9780393245110

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