To choose one life changing book seems like an impossible thing, but when you lay out your life so far and pin the books you remember in place like moths it's easy to see which are the main contenders. For me, one stood out like a beacon; it taught me something horrid. Something that changed the way I look at the past.
If writing is my first love, history is my oldest friend. Like most old friends, history and I have had our fallings out; I do not always like history, but she is always there. I thought she was safe, too, not in a literal sense, but an emotional one, you see. The thing I always liked about the past is that it is set. It simply exists, and we can look at it. We can walk in its tracks, but it can't hurt us... or so I thought.
Then I read The Earth is Singing.
Set in Riga during the second world war, this book reached into my chest with a subtle yet iron-like grip and tore something vital.
A Mirrored Change
Hanna, the teenaged protagonist of The Earth is Singing lives in a part of history we can almost touch. If we stretch our fingers to our grandparents and they, in turn, reach back a little further... we can grip the events of this book in our hands. Which is an awesome, horrific truth (note, here I mean 'awesome, def. awe inspiring, daunting, huge and overwhelming).
Perhaps it was Curtis' elegant prose, punchy story-telling, and keen eye for detail, or maybe it was watching Hanna turn from a naïve, optimistic girl who see's good in the world into a weary, frightened girl who had become older than her years; I changed too.
When people were cruel to her. When her friends turned on her and she could not longer attend her dance school. When grown adults kicked down. When she and her family were torn from their hiding place to live in the ghetto of Riga, I felt this... thing growing in me.
Rage. Real and solid. Like a poisoned seed. No matter what I did, it wouldn't dislodge.
You see Hanna is a Jew, and The Earth is Singing takes place during the Nazi occupation of Latvia, and what comes after they are found hiding is real. Though the characters in this story are not taken from any single story, they are as real as the events of the book.
It aged me, this book, and taught me something about myself. I thought I was a pacifist. While reading it I learned that I am capable of venemous, virulent hate; some of these people, these cruel, small minded people... I wanted them to be real. Solely so they could be punished. I wanted to pull them out of the book and shake them, slap them, push my thumbs into their eyes.
I wanted to demand that they answer for their cruelty to Hanna, her mother, and her Omma... and the violence of those feelings frightened me. All philosophical, ethical questions aside, it is a testament to Curtis' writing skills that she managed to drag these feelings out of me. They've never quite left. I wept with anger for the first time when Uldis turned on Hanna. I can feel the ragged edges of that anger even now.
I said that I used to believe that history could not touch us, which was silly in retrospect; I am a historian by education. Maybe I spent too much time with my head buried in dusty old books, copies of primary sources. Maybe it's the fact that I specialized in the long gone past. David I, Alexander III, John Knox... each closer in time than the last, but not one of them born or passed within the living memory of any person I have known.
Even the memory of them is faded, locked into books written by authors who studied copies of copies, pulling meaning from languages that haven't been spoken in centuries. Not like the murdered Jews of Riga; they spoke languages we speak now. They ate foods the people of Latvia eat today. They walked streets that we can walk... their belongings may still be out there, in Rumbula Forest, hidden under years of earth and foliage.
You see that is the terrible climax of the violence in this book; the Rumbula Massacre wherein 25,000 Latvian Jews were murdered by Nazi soldiers and thrown into mass graves.
The murders and atrocities committed in Eastern Europe, both by the Nazis and the Soviets, are often glossed over in discussions of the second world war. Or perhaps just forgotten; how do you discern one pile of murdered people from another? How do you begin to ensure that some tragedies never slip through the cracks of memory?
You write about them, as Vanessa Curtis has.
You may wonder where the rather poetic title, The Earth is Singing comes from. I did. The answer is nowhere near as beautiful as the wording. In fact it's the most horrifying thing I've ever read. So horrifying, in fact, that it redefined the meaning of the word 'horror' for me.
As a horror fan, I hear that word and think kitschy '80s slasher films, Stephen King books, The Haunting of Hill House... fiction. Scary fiction, to be precise. I've written about that before, about how to create horror when writing fiction. But the word itself, of course, is separate... and much older. The etymological roots of the word are old. The word itself is Latin, meaning to bristle, to shudder, to tremble. It describes a feeling of revulsion, repelled fear, disgust at knowledge received or events seen.
When Riga's Jewish community was massacred in Rumbula forest, they were herded en masse to a gravesite. A mass grave and these people were shot. One after the next they were lined up at the edge of the grave and shot. They were pushed into the grave until it was full... then they were covered, whether they were dead or not.
Andrew Ezergailis wrote in his book The Holocaust in Latvia, 1941-1944 that
"the pit itself was still alive; bleeding and writhing bodies were regaining consciousness... moans and whimpers could be heard well into the night. There were people who had been only slightly wounded, or not hit at all; they crawled out of the pit. Hundreds must have smothered under the weight of human flesh."
Only three victims of this massacre survived, and Hanna follows their path; she crawls from the grave and hears it.
"The earth is singing" Hanna relays, through Curtis, and she cannot save those buried under the weight of hatred and violence. In that moment, reading that line, I felt it.
The earth was singing and bleeding, and as I read the words I could feel real horror. That kind of bone deep, greasy, 'falling in a dream', full body horror that brings cold sweat to your neck and chest.
I put the book down, I wept, and then I read the final few pages. And when it was done, I put the book on a shelf. A chronic re-reader who loves to read and re-read books until they fall apart... I have never touched it since. I don't need to - Hanna's story is burned into my soul.
The Claws of History
History. Her face changed after I read that book; she had reached over the table between us and gripped my arm with sharp nails as if to say 'look at me'. As if to remind me that she and I are not distant to each other. That she can touch me, as she has touched others.
One book I have re-read since is The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, and when I do I am inevitably reminded of The Earth is Singing. Kostova writes,
"History it seemed could be something entirely different, a splash of blood whose agony didn't fade overnight or over centuries"
That's the truth that won't leave. Once you feel it, the shiver of realization... it's the difference between knowing that these things happened, and understanding that they happened. It's important and horrid... and permanent. The descendants of that first shiver of horror exist in every textbook, article, documentary. They are taxing room mates, but valuable ones.
So, I owe Vanessa Curtis gratitude for illuminating an obvious truth and drawing the eye to an overlooked atrocity... Someone had to, and she dealt with the subject matter sensitively, humanely, and with tender attention to the humanity of the people at the heart of the story. But I don't know if I could say that I am thankful I read it. Like the academic visit to Auschwitz I took with my school as a teenager, I file The Earth is Singing into that part of my memory marked 'Important to have experienced, never want to do it again'.
About the Creator
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme