Book Buzz: Daughters of Riga

Daughters of Riga by Marian Exall

Bellingham author Marian Exall trades mysteries for historical fiction with her newest title, “Daughters of Riga,” which follows the lives of several women whose lives crossed paths in Latvia during World War II. While so much has been written about the Blitz in Britain and the occupation of France and the Netherlands, readers may be less familiar with the history of Latvia during that time.

“Daughters of Riga” conveys the complicated socio-political dynamics at play while adding a human dimension with the stories of two girls, Berta and Dani, who meet at the Dutch consulate in Riga. Berta is the shy, young daughter of Richard Vandercam, a Dutch civil servant posted to Latvia at the end of the 1930s.

Berta’s beautiful mother Margriet is a socialite who is miserable to find herself in what she perceives to be a provincial backwater, saddled with a 4-year-old. Berta’s world brightens with the arrival of Dani Loesseps, the 9-year-old daughter of her father’s new assistant, Nellie. The girls enjoy blissful hours in the consulate courtyard, engrossed in make-believe, unaware of the personal and international tragedies unfolding around them.

Dani’s mother Nellie knew she was taking a risk returning to Latvia, but after her Dutch husband died she yearned to be closer to family in Riga. Though Jewish, like most Latvian Jews at the time, Nellie’s family had never been particularly observant, and the looming specter of Nazi Germany did not seem as troublesome as the increasing encroachments of Russia from the east.

But as German hostilities across Europe mount, Nellie introduces a local rabbi to Richard, who hatches a plan to provide travel visas to Dutch colonies, allowing young Jewish men to escape. Soon there are lines of Jewish refugees awaiting papers. Nellie and Richard throw themselves into this work, aware of the risk but compelled by urgency to continue.

Exall’s tale takes a while to build. She jumps back and forth in time, from Dani to Berta, at different points in their lives, and back again. It isn’t until the narrative returns to the final days at the Dutch consulate in 1940 that the pace quickens and readers are fully hooked.

According to the author’s blog, “Daughters of Riga” was inspired by Exall’s visits with her niece’s neighbor in Southwest France. The neighbor’s father was the Dutch Consul in Kaunas, Lithuania. He issued more than 2,300 visas to Jews fleeing the Holocaust and was credited posthumously with saving hundreds of lives. Exall sets her novel in Latvia, but her consul shares the same strategy (granting visas to Curaçao and other Dutch colonies in the Caribbean) as a means of shepherding Jewish immigrants to safety. Though fictionalized, Exall’s story is equally compelling and inspiring.

For other wartime stories set in Eastern Europe and the Baltic, try “Salt to the Sea” by Ruta Sepetys, “Anna and the Swallow Man” by Gavriel Savit and “The Zookeeper’s Wife” by Diane Ackerman. All are available for checkout from your public library at

Christine Perkins is executive director of the Whatcom County Library System,

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Sunday, April 14, 2024.)