When, early in chapter three, the Liv servant Erene shouts, “We’re on fire. They’ve set the house on fire!” you will probably think, “Well, I didn’t see that coming.”
Standing in the cold, dark snow of a 1905 Baltic winter, huddling with his mother and sisters, crying for his missing father, young Wiktor Rooks didn’t see it coming either.
In fact, throughout a novel that spans the history of the Baltics from 1905 to World War II, no one seems to see history coming at them. And yet, truthfully, few places on earth suffered as much history in those years as the Latvians did.
Wiktor Rooks, protagonist/narrator of this sweeping piece of historical fiction, is a Baltic German, a descendant of those 13th century crusaders who settled in Latvia and became the country’s landed gentry. Over the decades, they changed their allegiances as smoothly as they changed tax collectors from the Swedes to the Tsar. So, after so much accommodation, it came as some surprise to Wiktor and his family to be dispossessed by one’s own serfs, the native Latvian peasants, in the rebellions of 1905.
Of course, that was not the only time people in Latvia “didn’t see it coming.” The history of the early twentieth century was especially cruel. Latvia’s independence was crushed by one invasion after another, foreign armies marching from one direction or another like shifting winds over the Baltic Sea.
Wiktor finds himself first an officer in the Russian army fighting the German advance across the Daugava River, then leading the Latvian Riflemen fighting with the Russian Imperial Army against the Germans, and then finally siding with the ascendant Bolsheviks after 1917.
By 1924 he is back in Riga, enjoying the all-too-brief calm of national independence in Latvia’s capital. For him and for Latvia, it was a honeymoon period that ended with a brutal Russian occupation, one that was only relieved by a German invasion even more cruel. And, if you thought that might be all, well, you didn’t see Stalin’s cruelty coming either, did you?
There are two elements to William Burton McCormick’s success in this novel. First is a character-driven story that pulls the reader along through the tendentious twists and turns of a story that moves from the fields of Courland to the medieval streets of old Riga, across a frozen Moscow and back to castled Sigulda, and finally to working class Daugavpils.
Wiktor grows before our eyes, a fundamentally likeable person, one who tries to hold on to his personal honesty and generous nature, even when surrounded by lesser spirits. His is a lifelong identity search, one that parallels Baltic history. Yes, McCormick pulls us through some painful, cruel history, but we are buoyed by a noble narrative and credible characters.
Secondly, there is a lot of Latvia in this tale. From the smell of rural field-clearing fires in the fall to the pungent odor of damp, heavy wool on a crowded tram, from the sound of the cathedral’s chimes to the click of ladies’ shoes on narrow, cobblestoned streets, this is the real Latvia.
This small country on the shores of the Baltic Sea features Jews, Lutherans, Orthodox Russians, and Catholics -- all shaped by their religions, by their family’s migratory narrative, by their sense of place. The sweeping storms of history leave their mark on both the places and the people, and the author illuminates these characteristics with subtle uses of place and cultural references.
The deeper question Wiktor Rooks confronts is one many Americans confront today. What defines your identity? Is it where you are born? Is it the regional accent in your speech? Is it the nationality of your forbearers? Is it whom you went to war with, or who you went to war against? Or is it, perhaps, what you believe?
A compelling story set among the people, languages, and histories of the Baltics, Wiktor Rooks’ Latvia rings true in Lenin’s Harem.
Brian E. Carlson served as the American Ambassador to the Republic of Latvia from 2001 to 2005. Today he advises InterMedia Research Institute on defense and diplomacy, is a member of the Association of Old Crows, and serves on the board of the Public Diplomacy Council.
Lenin’s Harem is published in English from Endeavour Press, and is available for download from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.
Lenin’s Harem is also available in Latvian under the title ‘Ļeņina harēms’, translated by Andžela Šuvajeva , published by Zvaigzne ABC, and available for order or download from Zvaigzne.lv or purchasable at any Zvaigzne ABC bookstore.