Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Book Recommendation: "White Field, Black Sheep"

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.


  1. This book is currently sitting on my "to be read" shelf. Maybe once the kids go to college?

  2. Sounds like an interesting book, might try to look it up some time, though my 'to read' list is sooo long as it is.
    Anyway, the title is actually a riddle, or at least part of a national Lithuanian riddle. Probably one of the best known ethnic riddles :) The full version would be something like this - White field, black sheep, anyone with the knowledge can herd them. With the answer to that riddle being book pages (white fields) and letters (black sheep).

    1. I understand about too long "to read" lists! Thanks for the reminder regarding the riddle. :) She does explain the riddle in the book. We have the same one in Latvian - how many other languages do, too?


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