Being Latvian is a funny thing sometimes. Earlier this month I was reading a book titled "Bad Feminist: Essays" by Roxane Gay, who spent time on the faculty of Eastern Illinois University. In one essay she mentions her colleague and friend Daiva. Naturally, I know Daiva to be a Lithuanian name, so I immediately wonder who this person could be and search for "Daiva Eastern Illinois University" online. Quickly discovering that the woman's last name is Markelis and that she is also on faculty at the college, I also find out that she is the author of a memoir called "White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life." The title seems vaguely familiar - maybe I'd heard of it somewhere previously. Regardless, I add it to my "must read" list. While looking for books to take on a trip, I remembered this one, and bought it for my e-reader. From the moment I began reading it, the memoir resonated with me and my experiences of growing up in the Latvian-American community.
Markelis' parents fled Lithuania at the end of World War II, spent time in Displaced Persons camps in Germany, and eventually ended up in Chicago, a city with the largest number of Lithuanians outside of Lithuania. Her parents spoke only Lithuanian to Daiva and her younger sister Rita, and tried to instill in them pride in their heritage. She grew up in a Lithuanian neighborhood, was friends with many other Lithuanian-American children, attended a Lithuanian Saturday school, and so on.
This memoir of growing up in the Chicago Lithuanian community is a must-read for any Baltic American! However, the book is also a worthwhile choice for anyone who grew up in the U.S. in the 60s and 70s or in the Chicago area, or who has experienced misunderstanding their parents' actions and motivations, as well as readers interested in immigrant experiences in the U.S.
Being the child of Latvian immigrants who also arrived after WWII, I was familiar with many of the themes the author addressed and explored including: a patriotic upbringing, pride in one's language/culture/history, the vast yet often silent disappointment and frustration of dreams and futures deferred or stolen, longing for home and familiarity, a deep love of all things cultural, the misunderstandings and confusion brought on by a new culture and country, the ubiquity of alcohol as a social lubricant and drowner of sorrows, lack of understanding about mental health, and the fear of disappointing one's family.
The 1960s and 70s were a vibrant period in the Baltic American communities, and we can be grateful that at least one person has crafted a well-written memoir which does an excellent job of describing that period.