"She hears her nation crying, counting, chanting the years of its exile as if pushing black discs of an invisible abacus."

Latvian immigrant Milda Bērziņa-Arājs, her sister, mother, aunts, cousins, and daughter are the heroines of this historical family drama focused upon themes of displacement and identity. Many strong male characters appear in the novel, but much attention is lavished on female viewpoints. The story opens as Milda attends a Latvian song and dance festival, an activity she cherishes as a Latvian seeking to maintain her family's language and culture outside the USSR. The Arājs family has lived within a closed world in the Midwestern US, mingling only with other Latvian families, sending their children to a Latvian cultural school on Saturdays, and attending a Latvian church on Sundays.

The story arc spirals between Milda's past and present in non-sequential order but with a deeply reflective narrative upon her emotional and intellectual dilemmas as a child, young adult, wife and mother, and, finally, as a widow and grandmother. Constricted by her devotion to her homeland and her emotionally distant, "super-Latvian" husband, ever radically opposed to American melting pot assimilation, Milda's life seems like a never-ending nationalistic and personal "exile within exile" that smothers the expression of her authentic self.

A close read of this first volume of Barbins-Stahnke's trilogy is not an easy task. But it is certainly a rewarding one for those interested in a female perspective of Eastern Europeans caught between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in the twentieth century. One might say that this novel lives in the borderland between a good story and a literary tour-de-force. It is not quite the latter, but the work definitely reaches toward that status. The lyrically delicious prose and presentation of fictional personal experience within the construct of the cultural and historical milieu of the Latvian diaspora make the reading experience well worth the effort.

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