I think just about all of us possess books, perhaps even shelves of them that sit unread for years. Out of those books, there’s always a few at the end of the year that cause us to look at and mutter a loud, “next year will be the year I finally read it” Yet, if you’re like me, you never do. Agate Nesaule’s A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile is one those books. Published back in 1995, her American Book Award winning memoir sat on my shelf unread for close to five years. Finally, in a desperate make myself finally read it, I included it as part of Roof Beam Reader’s 2013 TBR Pile Challenge. Optimistic and upbeat, I cleared off a special shelf for A Woman in Amber plus a dozen or so other books that I hoped to read over the course of 2013. Then, like I always do I buried myself in library books and never got near the thing.
Last weekend I said enough is enough and grabbed my copy of A Woman in Amber. After starting it I breezed through A Woman in Amber in only a few days. For the most part I’m glad I finally read it. While it didn’t rock my world like I hoped it would, nevertheless I still enjoyed it.
In her memoir, Nesaule recounts her life beginning with her early childhood in the later days of WWII as her family was forced to flee her native Latvia to escape the invading Red Army. Upon arrival in Nazi Germany, her and her family, along with other refugees, were briefly interned and then conscripted into forced labor. After suffering at the hands of the conquering Red Army and spending five years in a British-run displaced persons camp, eventually Nesaule’s family was offered asylum in the United States and re-settled in the Midwest. Living in a hardscrabble neighborhood in Indianapolis she learned English, studied hard and because of her hard work, determination and intelligence was awarded a college scholarship. While attending Indiana University she was swept off her feet by worldly but douche bag guy who she later married over the vehement protests of her parents. Bad marriage and all, she would later go on to become a successful college professor.
Some parts of A Woman in Amber I liked more than the others. I found her descriptions of life in Latvia interesting, as well as those she spent in the displaced persons camp. In what became a pleasant surprise to me, I loved her recollections of attending American high school and how she finally mastered English. Another such surprise were the challenges her and her family had to overcome as refugees living in an economically depressed part of Indianapolis. (At one point her family lived across the start from a small brothel and was frequently awoken late at night when drunken johns mistakenly banged on their door.)
I wasn’t as much a fan of the last part of the book, in which she spent a lot time meditating upon the trauma and disappointment of her failed marriage to an alcoholic and abusive husband. All writing is a product in some form or another of its time and place. In the 90s not only did memoirs gain in popularity but more and more people turned to familial introspection as a tool for psychological healing . With that in mind, it looks like A Woman in Amber is indeed a product of its time.
The staggering civilian death toll in Eastern Europe before, during and after WWII for years had been overlooked by most historians until fairly recently. Fortunately, more and more books are being published which explore this tragic part of history. Reading A Woman in Amber has rekindled my desire to read a quartet of relevant books. Both Orderly and Human and The Savage Continent I’ve been wanting to read ever since they were mentioned on Claire’s blog. I’d also like to read Bloodlands and The Lost. (Fortunately for me, Bloodlands is currently on my desk right just waiting to be read.) Inspired by A Woman in Amber, maybe sometime soon I will read all of these promising books.