Terez Peipins couldn’t have known while writing The Shadow of Silver Birch, which is all about European wartime immigration and partially set in Catalonia, that, by the time she published the novel, Europe would be engulfed in its worst refugee crisis since World War Two, and Catalonia would be making news around the world for declaring (sort of) its independence from Spain. The Shadow of Silver Birch is thus a very timely book and worth reading for its strong, believable characters and its depiction of the way the Latvian nation struggled all through the twentieth century and particularly during and after WWII.
I have known Terez Peipins since the early ‘90s. We both lived in Barcelona at the same time, though she spent even more years there than I did. For a while, we workshopped our stories and poems in the same writing group. Now I live in Los Angeles and she’s in Atlanta. Though born in the U.S., Peipins has always been closely connected to her Latvian heritage—more closely, I would say, than most second-generation Americans of foreign-born parents. Interestingly, she chose to settle for a long while in Catalonia, which, like Latvia, is a small nation dominated by bigger states around it, and “occupied,” for hundreds of years, by Spain. Peipins has visited Latvia often and has all her life been immersed the Latvian language and culture. Her love for her parents’ homeland is plain to see on every page.
This is the story of Juris and his two daughters, Olga and Laura. During the war both daughters leave Latvia, Olga spending time in a DP camp before eventually emigrating to Canada, and Laura falling in love with a young Spanish soldier and settling in Barcelona (though not with the soldier!). Peipins is at her best when she describes the immigrant experience. She has heard stories about immigration and exile since childhood; characters, situations, and locations have an authentic ring to them that can’t just be the result of research. Take this passage—the virtual exile of the one character who stayed at home—as an example:
Sometimes Juris, who had spent his entire life in Riga, felt displaced. The names of the streets had been changed so many times that no one knew what to call anything anymore. First the Russians, then the Germans, and now the Russians again were trying to erase any sign of Latvian.
Or this one:
Today there was a familiar thin envelope from Latvia. Envelopes revealed the economic status of each country. In Latvia, the paper was so thin as to be almost transparent; in Spain it was a bit thicker, and the letters from Canada always had a pleasant weight to them.
What was especially convincing for me was the description of one character’s life in a Siberian gulag. Whether Peipins knew about this from family stories or research, it’s amazingly well done:
While Juris had been chopping down trees and working outdoors, he was never sick. Now that he worked indoors, he had a persistent cough he couldn’t shake. He rationed out his tea, making endless pots from one spoonful which he shared with his companions. It was still stronger than what they got with their meals. Juris tried to breathe in the warmth of the tea as if it were Lilly herself, as if he could capture her essence.
The writing has an authentic feel, and the style is lyrical and serene. Here’s how Peipins describes Laura at home in Catalonia:
Laura sat in the garden with her needlework, marveling at the warmth of the sun in the garden. At the end of the winter when absolutely everything was dead in Riga, here orange blossoms filled the air with a sweet fragrance. The white blossoms could even be made into a tea used for its relaxing effect. Aina was learning to talk and Laura laughed as the little girl tripped every other step and looked up at her mother from the ground, surprised, as if to ask how she got there. Laura could keep one eye on her and one on the tapestry she was cross-stitching from memory of one which hung in their living room in Riga.
This gentle style, and Peipins’s portrayal of the Latvian diaspora, are the reasons to read this book. We sense, on nearly every page, a longing for homeland. Both Laura and Olga do well overseas, but somehow never find happiness. Ironically, their father Juris who remains in Lativa, feels more contentment by the end of his life than his daughters do abroad. The material well-being that life in Canada and Spain brought to these immigrants was not enough to heal a very old wound. As in Herbert Gold’s Fathers, one immigrant-character just can’t adapt to his new land, and slips into permanent depression.
The only issue I had with this narrative was the lack of drama and big scenes. I missed more intensity, someone losing their temper at some point, a little bit of tension here and there: real life, in every stratum of society except maybe in a Buddhist monastery, has people angry, excited, in suspense. In Silver Birch we have a convincing chronicle of characters’ lives through fifty years of history, but not enough conflict. In this sense, the depression one character falls into is significant: depression, they say, is anger turned against oneself, directed inward. And to the outside world this inner conflict is perceived as deadness and resignation. This atmosphere of wistful resignation I think intentionally permeates the book. Still, with so many characters and situations and pages of history covered here, I would have loved to see Peipins make more of the potential for intensity here and there, and a couple of evil or semi-evil characters. Perhaps Peipins meant for the real antagonist to be the cataclysm of World War Two? At a few points toward the end, characters remind each other of why things turned out the way they did, with statements like, “It was the war, you see, all because of the war.”
And it’s this wistful resignation that seems to shut out, for all the characters except one young girl, the comforts of religion. First the Nazis and then the Russians and the Fascists and the factories of Canada, seem to have shorn away the last traces of faith in God or a higher power. But there’s something else going on. More than once in the novel, if I recall right, Peipins talks about religion in Latvia, how it was one of the last parts of Europe to embrace Christianity, and how some Latvian places retained pagan practices till only a few hundred years ago. This absence of faith makes the book more poignant, as does the absence of artistic pursuits. Laura, for example, started out as a pianist, but later gave up her concert hall ambitions. Many characters who started out as professionals ended up working in factories. This brought material prosperity, but there was always something missing from most of these people’s lives, forever changed by war and occupation and, yes, stunted, condemned not to really know their true potential and to always ask, “What if? What if?” I’ll end with a lovely passage that takes place in a church; it seems to exemplify better than any other the mood of quiet determination mixed with sadness that pervades The Shadow of Silver Birch:
Now that she attended church, Olga tried to believe in a larger figure who controlled, who decided who lived and who died, but she still couldn’t make any sense of it. It was impossible to imagine a God who would let Laura be so stupid or let Astrid die, let alone permit the war they’d all lived through. She took her comfort in the space of the church itself, in the candles and smell of incense.
I wonder what kind of German and Swedish novels those second-generation Syrian-Germans and Syrian-Swedes will be writing in thirty or forty years from now.