Friday, November 07, 2008

The blog has not been forgotten. And these books are about people who should not be forgotten.

Dana Jennings' Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death, and Country Music hit me the most personally. Jennings talks about the role of classic country music in his life and that of his family growing up in rural New Hampshire -- not the location one most associates with country music, but his stories resonate with my North Carolina family. I remember a story about how my great-grandfather was apparently needy enough to trade his gun for liquor. That's the kind of people Jennings talks about, and he was there for some of it in his family; I just heard the parts people were willing to pass down (my great-grandfather and his daughter were both dead before my grandfather told me about his father-in-law's drinking). But these stories make the country records on my grandparents' turntable make sense to me in a way they didn't when I was a 12-year-old listening to Culture Club and Duran Duran. Not that growing up didn't make me realize how deeply the Osbourne Brothers' "Rocky Top" and such bluegrass and country were embedded in my brain from childhood hearings, but this book made me a lot more aware of the emotional purpose these songs served for their contemporary listeners. It's the same emotional purpose Suicidal Tendencies' "How Will I Laugh Tomorrow (When I Can't Even Smile Today)?" served for me when I was a depressed 17-year-old -- an age at which these rural girls were often coping with marriage and/or motherhood instead of my own problem of not being able to pay for college. And so the book made me feel a lot closer to people I only knew as elderly ladies bent over a quilting frame, or as names in genealogy records, and closer even to many, many Americans who didn't get much American dream for themselves in the past and even now.

But at least I always knew something about rural Americans. Despite spending a stretch a couple of years ago reading all kinds of books on Russian history, most of the place names I could name in the Asian part of Russia were learned off a Risk board. The conquest of Siberia, one-twelfth of the world's landmass, by Russians from the European side of the Ural Mountains was lucky to get a couple of paragraphs in those tomes. A partial fix for that is in The Shaman's Coat: A Native History of Siberia by Anna Reid, who journeyed across Siberia to see the homelands of some of the native peoples and survey what had happened to them under tsarist, Soviet, and now Russian Federation government. A single 200-page book can barely scratch the surface of the subject -- Reid points out that she only visited and interviewed members of nine of the thirty-one "Small-Numbered Peoples" of Siberia, as the Soviets labeled these ethnic groups. (As with Native American Indians, a few centuries of fighting with Europeans and getting exposed to their new diseases took quite a toll on the size of the original population.) Still, the book is a fascinating introduction to groups such as the Buryat, Tuvans, Sakha, and Chukchi, through both Reid's visits and the records from the Russians and other groups who showed up to live on their land. The collapse of Communism seems to have strengthened some of their ethnic identities, and it will be interesting to see if any of these groups show up as the next Chechens fighting for independence from Russia, or if they just quietly keep on trying to survive, with or without the culture and traditions that Reid searched for.

Perhaps the atrocities of Nazi Germany are in less danger of being forgotten or ignored than those perpetrated on indigenous peoples who had less chance to tell their stories. But that's no reason not to pay attention to the life stories of people who lived through World War II, and author Mark Kurzem's father Alex (anglicized from "Uldis Kurzemnieks") has had a fascinating, surprising, and sometimes horrifying life, chronicled in The Mascot: Unraveling the Mystery of My Jewish Father's Nazi Boyhood. As far as his wife and children in Australia knew for most of their lives, a five- or six-year-old Alex was found wandering alone in the forests near the Russian border in 1942 by Latvian soldiers. The trauma of surviving alone for an unknown time (the shortest possible time guessed in the book is several weeks; it might have been longer) had made the little boy forget his name and origin. The soldiers named the boy, kept him with them for a while as a sort of mascot, and eventually their commander arranged a foster home for him in Latvia's capital, Riga, with a family who kept Alex through the war, their time in a displaced-persons camp, and their emigration to Australia. It was not until more than sixty years after the war that Alex revealed to his son Mark that he remembers, not his name, but the circumstances that left him alone in the forest -- that he remembers seeing his mother and younger siblings killed by soldiers. Latvia was occupied by the Nazis at the time and its soldiers used as part of German forces invading Russia; it probably wasn't hard to get Latvians to help with that invasion, since the USSR had invaded Latvia barely a year before the Germans did. The Latvian soldier who saved Alex from being executed with other "partisans" when he was found in the forest undressed him to find that he was circumcised and therefore most likely Jewish, but nonetheless kept the boy with his group of soldiers (with a warning not to let anyone see him undressed). The things Alex saw while he accompanied the soldiers haunted him, and even long after the war and on the other side of the planet, pressure continued on Alex to keep quiet about anything he had seen as a child that might incriminate the people who had cared for him in war crimes. But eventually the Kurzems researched and traveled to confirm as much as possible of Alex's memories and find his birth identity, despite the pain involved in revisiting that kind of past. The mix of historical and psychological mystery made this a book that I could not put down and read all in a single morning; I can't agree with reviews on Amazon who found the beginning to be too slow.