Literature Review: A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile

Līga Horgana is back with another literature review, this time Agate Nesaule's A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile.

The suffering of women is as real as that of men. I have seen both this afternoon. What a foolish debate that was long ago in the old Latvian Center. Who suffered more in the war, women or men? All of them. And all children too.(1)

A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile is a memoir by Latvian American Agate Nesaule. She was six years old when her family escaped Soviet repression during World War II. They lived in German refugee camps until 1950, then moving to the USA where she got an excellent education and worked as a professor of British and American literature. The work tells about women during the war and post-war period, and also reveals the social inequality of modern American society such as discrimination towards foreigners and black people, and domestic violence against women. The book was published in 1995 by Soho Press, and received an American Book Award in 1996. 

Agate’s mother was twelve when the czar was killed, and her family was forced to leave Russia in order to survive. After that, she was never able to feel truly happy in her life ever again. Her sad eyes were always looking at the horizon, far away from her house and her loved ones. She wished she could love her daughter more, but the horror and loss she faced in the wars had destroyed that ability in her. Perhaps after death the mother and her daughter would meet and become close again, but for this world it turned out to be impossible despite all their hopes and efforts. 

 Agate’s story starts when she is about five years old, playing with her sister in an orchard. Their father is a Lutheran minister, and her mother is a charming, intelligent teacher. She loves music and invites her friends and colleagues to musical evenings. A white satin cloth is laid on the table, they drink Russian style tea from tall glasses, eat raspberry meringues and apricot turnovers, and sing and play music. (2)  But in 1944, they leave this all behind to go into exile and face a completely different reality of famine, poverty, bedbugs, dirtiness, illnesses, humiliation, rape, bombing, killing and death. 

Some of the characters many years later are willing to believe that the war is too long ago, is over and does not matter anymore. However, the whole work proves this to be a complete lie, showing the destructive ways that smart, successful, well-educated, well-situated and well-integrated people deal with their traumatic pasts — struggling with addictions, experiencing suicidal thoughts and partaking in abusive relationships. The only way to get over the war is to recognize the abnormal humiliations, shame and cruelty that was experienced. The novel is a testament to how the horror of war distorts people physically and psychologically, yet affirms that it is possible to have a normal life after. 

Why tell this story now, so many years after World War II? In all wars the shelling eventually stops, most wounds heal, memories fade. But wartime terror is only the beginning of stories. The small boy with arms raised in the face of guns, the girl forced to witness rape, the emaciated children begging for food, if they survive, all have to learn how to live with their terrible knowledge. For more than forty years, my own life was constricted by shame, anger and guilt. I was saved by the stories of others, by therapy, dreams and love. My story shows healing is possible. 

“I cannot guarantee historical accuracy; I can only tell what I remember,” (3) the author says; however, that it is more than enough for the reader to imagine what horrific things she has experienced. It was emotionally hard and moving for me as well to read a childhood story like this and to be aware that it is just one of many stories, most of which are never told. It is a great book that on many levels shows the damage that World War II did: for one family, for one nation, for Europe and for the whole world.

Nesaule, A. (1997). A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Penguin Books.

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