LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2011 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 57, No.3 - Fall 2011
Editor of this issue: M. G. Slavenas
Daiva Markelis. White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Daiva Markelis’s White Field, Black Sheep is an entertaining and humorous life story written in masterful English prose. It is not so much an individualistic autobiography of the author as a literary memoir of her childhood community. She reflects on her growing up and coming of age during the 1960s and 1970s in the sheltered Lithuanian neighborhood of Cicero, Illinois. Urban and adult problems always lurk below the surface, breaking through when least expected. The author focuses on them as an adult.
The author is a first generation Lithuanian-American. She spoke Lithuanian at home and learned English at school. Her life swings in a dialectic between her Lithuanian heritage and American environs. This undercurrent not only propels her story forward but also contributes to the major conflicts of her life. Her father’s broken English and her mother’s insistence on correcting the English of American advertising slogans serve as two iconic poles in this ongoing pendulum. At the same time, the author journeys from a seemingly disoriented self, through childhood, puberty, and young adulthood towards psychological maturity as an adult Lithuanian-American woman.
The childhood chapters of the book are written with a charming naïveté with glimpses of her grown-up perspective. The young Daiva learns that her parents are “DPs” (displaced persons), but she thinks that they grew up in tepees (TPs). Her father teaches her Lithuanian riddles with loving patience. The title of the book is one such riddle. Lithuanian Catholic nuns, themselves from an earlier generation of immigrants, forbid Lithuanian at school. Ironically, Hispanic children now learn in their native Spanish at the same school. Of course, school ubiquitously pervades Daiva’s childhood, bringing friends, budding romance, and priest-want-to-bes. Instead of watching cartoons or playing soccer, Daiva and her sister spend their Saturdays attending Lithuanian cultural school – in addition to daily Lithuanian classes.
Markelis provides insight on the nuns’ conflict with a new generation of immigrant children. The nuns themselves are children of an earlier generation of Lithuanian immigrants. They come from working-class backgrounds with meager educations. In contrast, their new pupils are children of a highly-educated middle class (26). Their houses are filled with art and books. The children begin school already reading Lithuanian children’s books, but they do not know English.
With innocence and laughter, Daiva navigates between Halloween, Thanksgiving (i.e., pizza delivery) and Kūčios (Lithuanian Christmas Eve). Summers mean scout camp: Lithuanian scout camp. The campers make a show of speaking Lithuanian out loud to camp leaders for merit points. Markelis successfully recreates the entire world of her childhood, with its foibles and follies, in literary form.
An infamous neo-Nazi march in Cicero against African-Americans catapults the young Markelis into the world of adult realities. This is the turning point of the book. Work, depression, alcohol, religion, spirituality, sexuality, marriage, divorce, remarriage, and – especially – remembrance of things past become the new shifting foci of the book. The narrative shows how tempus fugit. The episodic nature of childhood, with its concrete details, gives way to broad strokes of adulthood, with its recurring themes and challenges. This includes the taboo subjects – for the Lithuanian community – of alcoholism, drug addiction, and sexual harassment. The author questions the holier-than-thou airs of Lithuanian cultural superiority in the United States. With her gift for belles lettres, she tells, narrates, and describes events without editorializing.
Particularly noteworthy are Santara-Šviesa (Unity-Light) gatherings, which she initially critiques as a “carnival.” They become the adult replacement for scout camp and a long-desired escape from Lithuanian Catholic culture. With her parents, she finds her place among Lithuanian artists, academics, and other self-proclaimed intellectuals. They gather annually for a weekend of papers, poetry, performances, and partying too. Markelis meets her Lithuanian academic mentors here.
The author’s maturation brings her into new relationships with her parents. She starts to befriend and admire her father toward the end of his life. Like her, he has literary talent of his own.
Throughout the book, the mutual affection between Daiva and her mother grows into a deep love. Daiva navigates her mother-daughter conflict through piano lessons, (not) learning to cook, and her own literary experimentation. Their mother-daughter roles reverse as Daiva nurses her ailing, dying mother. The humor between them never dies. The book ends with a loving homage to her mother.
Markelis’s book contributes to a legacy of Baltic literary memoir in exile. A generation earlier, the Latvian Agate Nesaule’s A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile (1997) treats the immigrant experience with similar gusto, finesse, and cathartic therapy. Markelis does the same for the children of these immigrants. Not surprisingly, both are professors of English and creative writing.
Markelis gives a very realistic snapshot of Lithuanian-American life. In my own childhood, I encountered the same personalities, scenarios, and conflicts as Markelis, but in the Marquette Park Lithuanian community of Chicago. It’s as if “the names were changed to protect the innocent.” I couldn’t put the book down: I read it with great interest in a few evenings. The book has garnered a well-deserved reception from Lithuanian-Americans and other readers. That the University of Chicago Press has published Markelis’ first book attests to her creative talent.