The Latvian world of her grandmother draws the writer, an American, back to the old country to re-create a vanished life between farm and war.
In her striking debut memoir, Verzemnieks (Creative Nonfiction/Univ. of Iowa), winner of a Pushcart Prize and a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award, refashions the early life of her deceased grandmother Livija, who was born and raised on a farm in Gulbene, in eastern Latvia. She left her hometown to work in Riga as a bookkeeper and was subsequently caught up in the Soviet invasion and takeover of her country in World War II. Livija then left her homeland and came to the United States, where she was reunited with her soldier husband, who had been demobilized from the Latvian Legion, which was actually fighting for Nazi Germany against Russia. Livija and her family settled into the Latvian community of the former mill town of Tacoma, Washington. There, they raised their granddaughter, the author, after her parents got divorced and underwent mysterious crises, leaving the child in their care. The author became keenly aware of all aspects of the life Livija left behind, so much so that years later, when she actually visited her grandmother’s homestead and grew friendly with her great-aunt, she was able to re-create in great detail this vanished life. Verzemnieks beautifully evokes the sympathy between Livija and her young granddaughter and the subsequent acquaintance between the author, now grown and married herself, and her great-aunt, who reluctantly revealed painful episodes of her past, such as the day the Russians arrived at the end of the war, ransacked the farmhouse, and deported her sister to a labor camp in Siberia. With fluidity and nuance, the author smoothly incorporates Latvian history into her narrative as well as the quietly buried sins of the past, such as the Latvian men’s forced conscription to fight on the German side.
A highly polished memoir of enormous heart.