Four Star Review, originally posted here on February 23, 2016.
First, a quick disclaimer: I did not actually finish the book, but I’m putting it down for now.
I was nervous going into this one. Confession time: I have never read a book in Latvian before, except as a kid in Latvian school. Every now and then I think that I should force myself to do it, but my reading just goes so slow, and my comprehension is so weak, that I worry that the frustration would keep me from enjoying/finishing/understanding anything. So when last spring my mom handed me this and said “I have THE book for you!” I was worried that this would be another case where a well-meaning Latvian hands me a book that I then put on a shelf with no intention of reading. I was pleasantly surprised when I took a closer look at it and realized that my mom was right- this was THE book for me. It’s a non-fiction collection of memoirs (bookended my more concrete historical analysis) from women in Latvia who, after WWII, escaped into the forests and joined the national partisans. In other words, badass Latvian women doing some badass things in some badass woods? Plus history that I don’t know anything about? PERFECT! Still, my fear of being unable to read it lingered, and it was several months before I picked this up off the to-read pile on my nightstand and nervously cracked it open.
A few paragraphs into the intro, I realized that I was glossing over the words, and nothing was going into my head. I worried that I was bound for failure. I thought to myself, “Come on, you read in Latvian all the time! It’s not that different just because it’s a full book! You read passages in church aloud and don’t have any problems then!” This gave me the idea to read the book aloud, pretty much like a 5 year old reading his first Dr. Suess, which may be a little embarrassing but actually worked amazingly well. Saying the words aloud and thinking about what kind of inflection I need to give to each word also forced me to think about what it is that I was actually saying, meaning I thought about what it is that I was actually reading, and suddenly, like magic, this content wasn’t so tough after all! I got through the academic intro no problem, felt fully engaged, and was super stoked to continue.
I didn’t have to continue my noisy reading trick much longer, because I soon realized that the majority of the book, which was written in the conversational tone of the women telling their stories, was (at first) very simple to understand since, like I said, the language was easy and conversational. The first couple memoirs really drew me in. Each woman told the story and how and why she wound up living in the woods in the first place, where her living space was, how and why they were captured, and what happened to them and their loved ones afterwards. One of these earliest stories was especially mesmerizing because it involved a crazy firefight that (spoiler) kills off the storyteller’s entire group of family and friends.
But eventually my excitement started to fade, and I realized I was rapidly losing interest. On top of that, I was having trouble following the storytelling again. I realized the problem, and this is a problem that I think would exist regardless of my Latvian reading skills: Each storyteller takes a turn telling her entire story from beginning to end. They each get roughly 30 pages. And they each tell roughly the exact same story. It means that, even though the stories would be interesting as stand-alone stories, they got exceedingly repetitive, and there wasn’t anything new or interesting to draw me in anymore. Compounding this problem is the fact that each woman’s story was told in her own voice, and some were, quite frankly, simply better storytellers than others. Some of them would kinda meander all over the place. Or divulge boring details and skim over things that would seem interesting. I do NOT think this means that the stories, as told, are not valuable. On the contrary, documenting these people’s experiences with as much detail as possible and in the fashion which those who lived it deem fit is vital in maintaining historical understanding for future generations, and I absolutely applaud the book’s collaborators for this achievement. But that doesn’t mean that it makes for enticing bedtime reading.
I also at this point realized that my mom had gotten in right again: She had warned me, as she passed me the book, that if I get sick of reading all these people’s stories, I should just skip to the last couple women, cuz I would love their tales. I was skeptical when she had said it, because why would I get bored of badass lady stories? But I was completely bored by badass lady stories, and I skipped ahead to the last couple stories. I admit, though, that even these stories weren’t pulling me in anymore. I was relived to then hit the epilogue, which was a scholarly chapter written by a historian who tied all the stories together with some context and statistics. It was, like I said, a scholarly chapter, and so I found myself skimming over entire pages that listed endless examples of whatever the author was describing at that point. As a stand-alone piece I would have devoured every word, but the examples were repetitious after having already read the full stories. Still, I appreciated a lot of the statistics and explanation involved, since sometimes the storytellers talked about things with the clear assumption that the reader knew what she was talking about.
I still have roughly half of the women’s stories to read, and I have every intention of reading them. But they are tales that I think are best to read one at a time, not all together in a row. So I am putting the book down for now, and will keep it by my nightstand, and then every now and then when I want to be inspired by my badass kinsfolk, I’ll pick up the next story.