"It's long been assumed of the region where my grandmother was born...that at some point each year the dead will come home," Inara Verzemnieks writes in this exquisite story of war, exile, and reconnection. Her grandmother's stories recalled one true home: the family farm left behind in Latvia, where, during WWII, her grandmother Livija and her grandmother's sister, Ausma, were separated.Read more...
"It's long been assumed of the region where my grandmother was born...that at some point each year the dead will come home," Inara Verzemnieks writes in this exquisite story of war, exile, and reconnection. Her grandmother's stories recalled one true home: the family farm left behind in Latvia, where, during WWII, her grandmother Livija and her grandmother's sister, Ausma, were separated. They would not see each other again for more than 50 years. Raised by her grandparents in Washington State, Inara grew up among expatriates, scattering smuggled Latvian sand over the coffins of the dead, singing folk songs about a land she had never visited.
When Inara discovers the scarf Livija wore when she left home, in a box of her grandmother's belongings, this tangible remnant of the past points the way back to the remote village where her family broke apart. There it is said the suspend their exile once a year for a pilgrimage through forests and fields to the homes they left behind. Coming to know Ausma and the trauma of her exile to Siberia under Stalin, Inara pieces together Livija's survival through years as a refugee. Weaving these two parts of the family story together in spellbinding, lyrical prose, she gives us a profound and cathartic account of loss, survival, resilience, and love.
- ISBN-13: 9780393245110
- ISBN-10: 039324511X
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
- Publish Date: July 2017
- Page Count: 288
- Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.4 x 1.1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 0.75 pounds
An ode to grief and resilience
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 daughter 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.