“This exquisitely written book shows how recovery can come generations later through rebuilding connections—to people, the natural world, the past.” —Robin Shulman, Washington Post
Inara Verzemnieks was raised by her Latvian grandparents in Washington State, among expatriates who scattered smuggled Latvian sand over coffins, the children singing folk songs about a land none of them had visited. Her grandmother Livija’s stories vividly recreated the home she fled during the Second World War, when she was separated from her sister, Ausma, whom she wouldn’t see again for more than fifty years.
Journeying back to their remote village, Inara comes to know Ausma and her trauma as an exile to Siberia under Stalin, while reconstructing Livija’s survival through her years as a refugee. In uniting their stories, Inara honors both sisters in a haunting and luminous account of loss, survival, resilience, and love.
A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.
Upon a visit to her ancestral Latvia, Verzemnieks, who teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Iowa, vividly imagines the dramatic youth of her grandmother Livija, a farm girl. Verzemnieks follows the desperate flight of Livija and her two small children to a refugee camp in 1944, with her husband at war on the Russian front. Upon settling later into the Latvian community of Tacoma, Wash., Verzemnieks's grandparents reunite, have children and grandchildren, and raise the author following her parents' divorce; their presence alone helps keep their memories of their beloved homeland alive for the curious girl. "Words can become as real as anything we see with our eyes or feel with these hands," Verzemnieks writes. She describes how refugees ousted from their lands form the collective bond of community in their adopted countries. By combining the memories of Livija and her sister, Ausma, with her own powerful impressions of Latvia, Verzemnieks has created a stirring family saga of exiles rich with compassion, loss, perseverance, myth, superstition, and courage.