From a critically acclaimed fiction writer comes the moving story of a boy with extraordinary ears who—with the help of a cache of his great-grandmother’s letters—brings healing to a town burdened by the sins of its past
From a critically acclaimed fiction writer comes the moving story of a boy with extraordinary ears who — with the help of a cache of his great-grandmother’s letters — brings healing to a town burdened by the sins of its past.
Young Maris has been summoned to his mother’s bedside as she nears the end of her life; she feels she must tell him her version of their family history, the story of his early life, and the ways in which he changed the lives of others. Maris was born with what some might call a blessing and others might deem a curse: his very large, very special ears enable him to hear the secrets of the dead, as well as the memories that haunt his Latvian hometown. Nestled in the woodlands on the banks of the Aiviekste River, their town suffered the ravages of war, then the cold shock of independence. As a boy, Maris found himself heir to an odd assortment of hidden letters; a school project provided the chance to share them, forcing the town to hear the truth from the past and face what it meant for their future.
With "luminous writing [and] affection for her characters" (New York Times), Gina Ochsner creates an intimate, hopeful portrait of a fascinating town in all its complications and charm. She shows us how, despite years of distrust, a community can come through love and loss to the joy of understanding — enabled by a great-grandmother’s legacy, a flood, and a boy with very special ears.
Your first day of third grade. The leaves crisped on the trees, curling orange, red, yellow. They crunched like brittle paper beneath our feet as we walked down our lane. The closer we drew to the school, the slower you moved. We spied other kids galloping toward the schoolhouse, their mothers in tow, juggling book bags, purses, and mandatory first-day gifts for the new teacher: yellow apples, embroidered handkerchiefs, chocolates. You had no book bag. I had no gifts. This was our third attempt in as many years to get through the dreaded first day. I had a pair of extra-large aviator muffs and these I slipped over your extra-large ears. As much to protect the tender cartilage as to dampen the colossal noise of the school yard.
Outside the wooden school doors, you grabbed my sleeve, turned to me. “I know I am peculiar,” you said. “But am I too peculiar?”
The verbal torment at the hands of schoolmates, the pain inflicted by well-intentioned neighbors. That’s what I heard in your voice. What I said, my hand on each of your narrow shoulders, “Maris, you are fearfully and wonderfully made.”
It’s a verse from Psalms, one of my favorites. I said it because I know the power words have. I’ve read Genesis. I’ve read how God spoke every blade of grass into being with the three little words let there be. The words: all potential, all possibility. Speaking a story makes it happen, and so I told you a story, told you it was yours.
A long time ago, so long ago no one remembers when, Bear-Slayer Boy rose out of the river’s mud. His ears, enormous. Trimmed with fur and as large as meat pies. With those ears he could hear the stirrings of field mice three countries away. His gifts of discernment were unparalleled. Bear Slayer could hear how the heartbeat changes, how the voice tightens when someone tells a lie. He could hear the sweet caroling of the songbirds and knew what the fish in the river were thinking. Smart and wise, Bear Slayer, though a boy, was also strong and courageous. Once, when he was walking in the woods, a bear ambushed him. Without hesitation Bear Slayer, using only his hands, slew that bear, ripping it apart at the jaws.
This story is a door opening. A door closing. The words are hinges, self-oiling through the act of repeated recitation. Repetition being a form of love, I told you the story every night during those magical, swift years of your childhood. How big were those ears? you often asked, your voice small in the growing darkness. Bigger than mine? You needed to know you were not alone in your oddity, that your outsize ears were not a mistake but a marvel. I leaned over you, turning chant to parable. These words being like the interlocking teeth of a zipper, you unzipped the teeth of the story, crawled inside its dark, capacious interior and made it your own.
Lymphoma. What a funny word! It sounds like a musical instrument, something that emits warm round tones when struck with a soft mallet. Anyway, Dr. Netsulis showed you how to administer the morphine, left several vials in a waxy white paper bag. He has changed so little through the years: the white lab coat, his snow-white hair, long beard, thick glasses, absentminded cheer. He said to me, Safe journeys and many white days! And six weeks left to live if you’re lucky.
You asked me yesterday if cancer hurts, really hurts. Yes and yes. You say you don’t remember the time we rushed you to the clinic in Madona. You say you don’t remember telling the doctor that hornets had built a nest with knitting needles inside your ears, that our voices rattled like matches in a matchbox. What you felt in your ears I feel in my lungs, a sharp rattling. Every breath is a short, hard swipe of matches on the striking surface’s rough swath. Thank God for morphine.
More like a liquid weight than anything else, I’d say. It pulls me under and I happily let it drag me to the depths. The weight is like that of the radiologist’s bib. Remember how during that visit the technician sat you on a stack of thick dictionaries and draped the lead apron over your small body?
The color of doom, that apron. And so heavy! It took all of your strength to keep your five-year-old body still so that he could take the pictures. More about that visit I could tell you: the immediate circuslike sensation your ears provoked among the technicians, the many questions the doctor asked as she trailed her finger along the tawny fur of your earlobes, but it’s that weight I’m thinking of. Morphine feels like a soft metal melting in my stomach, pulsing through my chest, hips, thighs, pushing all feeling toward my hands and feet, which are, incidentally, burning hot. I know I told you earlier not to fuss over me, not to bring the pans of ice water for my feet, but I think now I’ll take you up on that offer.
You’ve come to sit beside me. A sheen of perspiration stands on your brow and above your lip. The fading light makes your ears look larger. You’ve lit the candle. Some people will think it a waste that at eighteen years of age you’ve devoted yourself to tuning pianos, studying speculative physics, and publishing poetry in the temperance newspaper. But I’ll tell you this: I couldn’t be prouder of you.
From the open blisters on your hands, I can see that the ground is giving you some troubles. You are digging near Uncle Maris’s grave. It is a particularly unyielding patch of the cemetery, the ground buckling, his stone lashed with many black marks and tipped to one side. The earth pushes back what it doesn’t want. The fact is, something of your namesake has always lingered with us and I don’t mean in the sentimental way that people hoard memories and imagine that a memory is the man. I mean the man was with us. Palpably, tangibly, and long after he passed. We were marked, branded.
I understand now that you’ve known this all along. From the time you were four, your ears were as large as soup bowls. You could barely lift your head for the weight of them, for all the chatter and noise they collected. As you grew older, you kept notes. The ground spoke to you and you couldn’t help but hear the soil’s slow heave of stones. You heard the triumph of each slender blade of grass spearing up through the mud and the restless dreams of the dead. Buttons and zippers. Needles and thread, things that fasten and bind. At night, that’s what the dead dream of, you wrote. They are unhinging bone from joint, word from thought. Oh, that the needles of the trees would pierce them, would dart and pin body to soul. The unraveling, you wrote, is their greatest source of confusion. What are we without our bodies? This, you wrote, is the question that grinds at the dead like steel wool on a rusted washboard, like gravel splintering the planed pine boards of a coffin.
You wrote that when people die they leave an empty sack they fill with words, murmurs, questions, gossip, complaints. Some empty sacks are bigger than others. Uncle Maris, you wrote, wanted a new pair of leather shoes — nice Italian ones with ornamental fobs — because the walk to heaven was longer than he had figured. He’s been gone fifteen years. And still he has so much to
FINALIST FOR THE OREGON BOOK AWARDS—KEN KESEY AWARD FOR FICTION
"[A] beautifully spun tale… Ochsner bewitches the reader with layer upon layer of spellbinding storytelling...An astonishing alchemy of history, romance, and fable.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"In Ochsner's...strange, vivid second novel, a woman in a tiny Latvian village traces the magic-infused story of her life...Through bizarre, often hilarious vignettes featuring a cast of colorful characters and slapstick moments, Inara’s tale comes to light… Ochsner has created an entire town filled with characters who display eccentric habits and engage in sharp-tongued banter, bringing a touch of believability to even the book’s most out-there anecdotes. Humor, mythology, and an immersive setting, as well as a few poignant and visceral moments as family secrets are revealed, render this a memorable tale.”—Publishers Weekly
"Intimate, vibrant and richly colored...[a] touchingly fabulist story.”—Portland Monthly
"For readers who love historical fiction and magical realism, The Hidden Letters of Velta B. is a gift on par with Joanne Harris's Chocolat...Quirky, ethereal, hilarious and sorrowful, Ochsner's intimate portrait of a group of people who must survive with each other's help, whether they like it or not, perfectly highlights the connections between the everyday and the transcendental elements of being human."—Shelf Awareness
“A beautiful, tragic and mesmerizing account of a fascinating place and people.”—Eleven PDX Magazine
“A captivating novel of secrets, love, and memory, The Hidden Letters of Velta B. revels in the tragicomedy that is life itself, binding the poignancy of human dreams to accidents of circumstance. Ochsner weaves magic from muddy roads and financially strapped dreamers, plotters, eccentrics, gypsies, failed dancers, chessmasters and philosophers-- who, despite cell phones and bus service, could have lived in eons past. When an outsider threatens to move the town’s cemetery, the excavation becomes the perfect metaphor of buried memories in a history-haunted land. This terrific novel knocked me out.” – Janet Fitch, author of Paint It Black and White Oleandar
“In Gina Ochsner's extraordinary feat of storytelling, a dying mother seeks to armor her son with the power of myth and the strength of family history. The stories she tells are as rich as roasted eel from the river, but the ugly truth of their Latvian town's history keeps poking through like rocks in the hard cemetery ground. A spellbinding novel as tough as it is beautiful.” – Helen Simonson, author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
"I haven't read anything quite like The Hidden Letters of Velta B. in a very long time. It reminded me that sometimes I can read the same type of novel over and over almost as if they are comforting meditations on people, places, and things. I get in a rut, and start to get restless with my reading choices. Gina Ochsner stepped in at the right time and delivered a story that is full of folk tales, post-Soviet struggles, family secrets, and a young boy with ears that can hear the dead muttering in their graves...If you are a fan of novels set in post-Soviet Union Eastern Europe; of fairy tales and folk tales; of families, love, and regret, you will certainly want to read this wonderful novel. It is at times both funny with a gentle humor, and so sad it creates a pang in your heart. I enjoyed the family dynamics, the struggle to keep cultural stories alive to pass down to the next generation, and most of all, I loved Inara. She was a fully fleshed out character that kept me turning the pages."—Bookalicious Babe Book Reviews
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