A Woman in Amber begins with Agate Nesaule as an adult. She is a successful professor of Women’s Studies and 20th century American Literature at the University of Wisconsin Whitewater. Despite her outward professional success, Agate lives with an inner turmoil caused by her memories of war and perpetuated by her husband Joe. Nesaule finds herself in therapy, depressed and unable to come to terms with the root cause of her depression. On the advice of her therapist Ingeborg, Agate learns she can not begin to heal until she is able to tell her story; the story of what happened to her and her family during World War II in Latvia and Germany at the hands of the invading Russian soldiers.
So she begins her story by admitting that she was in Germany during the last year of the war and that she was starving. From this first admittance, Agate begins to tell many stories related to her hunger. She tells how she was prompted by her mother to beg the Russian soldiers, in Russian, not Latvian, for food. Later in life, she mistakenly tells this same story to her husband Joe. He mocks her time and again for the way in which she was forced to beg for food; suggesting she enjoyed it. Agate remembers how the Russians looked at her as if she were a goose singing. Agate relates the shame of going hungry and living with the belief she was not worth feeding.
As the war progresses, things do not get much better for Agate and her family. When the Mongolian (perhaps Mongoloid) Russian soldiers arrive, her father is forced to leave with the rest of the men. The women and young girls are taken to a basement where the women are repeatedly raped. Agate is young enough to escape this, but careful provisions must be made for her fifteen-year-old cousin Astrida. Agate’s mother Valda is understandably destroyed by the Russian occupation and the horrors that occur in the basement. When they are finally let out of the basement, the soldiers lead the women and girls into the woods. Everyone believes they are to be executed. Valda makes preparations to drag Agate with her to the front of the lines. Valda reasons if she and Agate are first, they will not need to see the others die. Agate does not wish to die, what ensues is a physical tug of war with her mother for her life. The struggle Agate has with her mother that day remains a constant tension between the two.
Agate is unable to see Valda’s love for her and desire to save her from pain. Later, the reader comes to see that Valda did care deeply for Agate and loved her very much; particularly in Valda’s description of her desire to prepare Agate for her wedding day, a preparation Valda was never able to follow through on. Unfortunately for Valda and Agate, the trauma of war and the distance their shared experiences placed between them left no time to reconcile before Valda’s death.
Later, Agate and her family journey to Berlin where they are admitted to a Displaced Persons camp. Here they are given food and shelter. The family would move many times during the next several years, going from camp to camp and beginning life again. Agate attends Latvian school while in the camps.
At age twelve, Agate and her family leave the camps and immigrate to the United States. We learn of Agate's life in the United States and her parents' financial struggle. Agate must adapt to life quickly in the United States. A quick learner, Agates teaches herself English in one summer. The first book she learns to read in English is Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. An excellent student, Agate receives a scholarship to attend Indiana University. While there, she meets her future husband Joe. Agate’s family does not agree with the marriage, and it finalizes the distance between Agate and her mother.
During the next twenty years Agate receives her doctorate degree, has a son named Boris, and becomes a successful professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Constantly living with Joe’s put downs, harassments, and minimization of the trauma she endured in the war, Agate represses her feelings of depression and tries to carry on with her life. Though they are separated for much of their adult life, Agate and Beate rejoin each other when Beate’s husband Uldis dies alone and penniless from alcohol poisoning.
Despite being distanced from the Latvian community in Indianapolis where her father remained very active, Agate retains a close tie to her Latvian heritage. When a friend asks what he may bring Agate from Latvia, she asks for some Latvian soil. It is party due to her connection with Latvia that her new husband John is able to find a way into Agate’s heart. Throughout her life, Agate admires an amber pendant that her mother wore and then passed down to Agate. John gives Agagte a similar piece of amber. Through his respectful and receptive listening Agate is fully able to heal when she tells John her story and finally finds acceptance.
Agate – Agate is the main character of the book. The book is concerned Agate’s experience in the war, and her eventual emigration to the United States.
Valda – Agate’s mother. Throughout the book Valda pines for her mother Russia where she was very involved in her studies. Valda is a teacher in Latvia. At age seventy, she receives her Phd. in Comparative Literature from Indiana University. She has soil from Russia embedded in her foot from a wound earlier in life.
Beate – Agate’s older sister. In the displaced persons’ camps Beate is very outgoing. She has financial trouble later in life, in part due to her husband’s drinking.
Joe- Agate’s first husband who she meets in college. Joe has trouble understanding Agate's past.
John – the man Agate meets after she divorces Joe. John helps Agate come to terms with her experiences in the war.
Immigration – The book highlights Agate’s experience of emigrating to America. We learn of the financial struggle her family faces when they move here and the burden they face in paying off their initial debt for housing. For many years, all members of the family had to work hard and do without. Agate explains the living conditions and the dangerous neighborhoods the family had to live in. Agate’s mother, a skilled teacher in Latvia had to work long hours in a kitchen to support her family.
Exile – Valda is a Latvian who was forced into exile in Russia. Once in Russia, the place she viewed as home, she then was forced to return to Latvia. Once in Latvia, Valda and her young family were forced into exile again; burying their most prized possessions in the dirt. After the exile from Latvia, the family moves to the United States. Through her families involvement with the Latvian American community in Indianapolis, Agate explores how her Latvian culture can be maintained.
Education- The novel highlights the importance Latvians place on education which is referred to in the novel as “the riches of the heart”. In Russia, Valada was very involved in her studies. As a child, Agate felt second to her mother’s interest in books. In the camps, Latvians organized schools to continue teaching the children in spite of the current situation. When the family was ready to leave the camps, their destination was either South America, or America. Agate’s mother insisted they immigrate to the United States so that Agate and Beate could receive their education. Valada continues her education, receiving a PhD. at 70.
Comparing Trauma - In Woman In Amber, Nesaule makes reference in several places to Jerzy Kosinski’s book The Painted Bird. She compares her own experience with the experience described by Kosinski. Nesaule concludes what was faced by Kosinki was worse than the trauma she experienced. The idea of comparing in trauma is present in the book in both her passage on Kosinski, and in her exploration of the question who suffers more in war: the men who are killed or the women who are raped.
Songs- Singing is important in Latvian culture. In the orphanage, the women join together to sing. Their singing is able to keep the Russian soldiers occupied, and brings an end to the raping that has occurred. When the Latvian women assemble around the piano, they are comparable to the sirens found in Homer’s The Odyssey. Their signing has a hypnotic effect on the soldiers which keeps them from raping the women.
Cultural Literacy- Cultural literacy is defined as being literate in a culture’s written material as well as being literate in the customs, traditions, and society of the culture. In the novel, Agate becomes literate when she learns English and reads Gone with the Wind. Agate is culturally literate when from the books, movies, and people she surrounds herself with she begins to learn the societal norms and expectations of her new culture.
The theme of healing is explored, along with private and public rituals of healing. Since Agate does not have an outlet in her public space for healing, she must turn to an outlet in her private space. In discussing literature, public space means any area in which you are in the public, for example at work, school, or out with friends. The private space means the space that your thoughts occupy. In her public space as a student, wife, and professor, Agate is unable to deal with her trauma. So, she has private rituals of healing in an attempt to deal with the trauma. These private rituals are a way for her to control the panic she experiences in her nightmares. Ultimately they are unsuccessful and only deepen her depression. She receives healing in the public space when she is able to tell her story to Ingeborg and John.
Tendency of the stronger members of society to prey on the weak- A Woman in Amber is full of instances describing characters in vulnerable positions at the mercy of those in power. The abuse of power Agate experiences in the war is seen in other circumstances throughout her life, even among those who are themselves victims. In the chapter describing the rapes that occur in the basement, Hilda, a woman who is raped repeatedly, is judged and isolated by the rest of the women in the basement. Although they too are victims of rape, they ease their own pain by ostracizing “othering” Hilda. Here the women gain power by judging Hilda. Another example occurs in Indianapolis. As a young woman going to the movies alone, Agate is molested several times by a man in the theater. She blames herself for the molestation and tries to keep the incident private. When Joe meets Agate at Indiana University, he can tell she is vulnerable and needs his help to register for classes. It can be argued that it was Agate’s vulnerability that Joe was attracted to. Agate maintains as much as throughout the novel; she says she remains with Joe reasoning if there were a war, he could save her just as he helped her register for classes the day they met.
From Library Journal: A woman in amber is one trapped and preserved in her past. Nesaule (literature and women's studies, Univ. of Wisconsin) tells a moving story to promote the reader's understanding and her own healing. As a child in Latvia, she endured the terror and dislocation of World War II at the hands of both Soviets and Germans, lived in a postwar refugee camp, and became an immigrant to the American Midwest, establishing a life there shaped by survivor's guilt and a sense of victimization. Integral to her life are family relationships, especially estrangement from her mother, stemming from the war years and the author's own unhappy marriage. In middle age, Nesaule at last comes to terms with her past, builds a new life, and offers her audience a well-written and insightful memoir. For subject collections and general readers., Rena Fowler, Humboldt State Univ., Arcata, Cal.Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Latvians Online  This paragraph was taken from an article written by Diana Kiesners: "Above all, no one must know what happened to the women in the basement at Lobethal. When the local Latvian center holds a debate to establish who suffered more in the war, men or women, it is a foregone conclusion that it is the men who suffered most. They have the statistics to prove it. The few women who disagree (Agate’s mother is one of them) are shouted down; what are their losses by comparison? "There are worse things than death,’ they say, but the word ‘rape’ cannot be spoken. Otherwise they will be ostracized, blamed for their own tragedy. Agate puts up her hand to vote "with the winning side"".
Haller, Evelyn. "A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile." The History Teacher 33.2 (2000): 276-77.
Winner of the 1996American Book Award.
Named Outstanding Academic book by Choice. (Choice provides book reviews for university libraries)
Selected for Outstanding Achievement Recognition by the Wisconsin Library Association Literary Awards Committee.