Review: ‘White Field, Black Sheep’

White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life by Daiva Markelis. University of Chicago Press, 208 pages

Daiva Markelis grew up in industrial Cicero, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, the first of two daughters born to a Lithuanian couple. Her parents had immigrated because of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, and they yearned their whole lives to return. They were officially “Displaced Persons,” a category for European refugees who fled communism, although Markelis didn’t understand for many years her parents’ plight.

The title of her memoir, White Field, Black Sheep, is based on a riddle her father told her about black sheep on a white field and “he who knows them leads them.” The white field is a book’s page, the black sheep the letters, the reader the shepherd who herds the flock into meaning. The riddle lends an appropriate title, because Markelis grew up bilingual—her parents spoke only Lithuanian at home. She was immersed as well in Catholic schooling and ritual, Lithuanian culture, American popular culture, and the poetry and fiction of both nations.

She even attended Lithuanian Scout Camp, which she loved. Of course she dreamed of growing up to be Miss Illinois. When Markelis was eighteen the Lithuanian grapevine led to a summer job waiting tables in southwest Michigan at “Tabor Farm: Family Resort,” owned by a man who’d fled the homeland during World War II, where she met Lithuanian poets and intellectuals. A few years later, in Europe, she taught English to Lithuanian children.

There came a day—too soon, my mother would have said—when English surpassed its rival in the struggle for linguistic supremacy. English seemed direct and simple, flexible as a Slinky. The misspellings that my mother derided—cheez for cheese—were just further indications of the general superiority of English over Lithuanian—its simplicity, its boldness, its sense of play. Lithuanian sentences seemed to go on and on, twisting and turning, like a forest path that eventually led you back to the very spot from which you started. Speaking Lithuanian meant being corrected, again and again, by parents or Saturday school teachers or well-meaning neighbors.

Her parents’ uncool, Old World clash with funky, permissive America is funny—for instance they can’t get their heads around the concept of giving their children allowances: “Let me get this straight. We feed you, put the clothes on your backs, and a roof over your heads, and now we have to pay you for this great privilege? It seems to me that you should be paying us!” And their trip out West one summer, in a car “smelling of cigarette smoke and dog hair and stale ham sandwiches,” is hilarious.

I argued for equal radio time, though I knew that getting my way was about as likely as eating at McDonald’s. Still, the idea that I was being deprived of what I saw in sixth grade as my lifeblood—rock and roll—made me determined to argue my case. My father occasionally conceded, allowing me twenty minutes of the Doors, the Stones, and Dylan, then unpredictably putting his foot down on some innocuous soft rock: “If you’re going to San Francisco.”

“But we are going to San Francisco, Dad, so why can’t we play that song?” I protested.

“Wha’ kind of man wears a flower in his hairs?” my father asked.

If my father’s love for country music was my private humiliation, his public use of English mortified me.

“Excuse please. Vee lookin for exit for Joe Semite,” he asked a gas station attendant.

The man looked confused: “Joe Semite?”

“Joe Semite National Park,” my dad answered, with growing irritation.

“Da-aad, it’s Yo-sem-it-ee,” I whispered.

Loosely chronological, White Field, Black Sheep jumps ahead some years two-thirds into the story and takes a darker turn. Markelis, who began drinking heavily when a high school sophomore, as a junior was rushed to the emergency room after downing “a liter of Southern Comfort followed by a jug of Boone’s Farm strawberry wine, topped with a sprinkling of angel dust.”

Her father, who had stopped drinking after wrecking the family car when she was eight, suggests she try his solution, Alcoholics Anonymous. She ignores him, and he stoically accepts her decision. She’s about twenty three when, in 1981, finishing her master’s degree, she suffers a serious depression and enters therapy. She saves herself with more therapy, and ultimately AA. Markelis returns White Field, Black Sheep to her parents, portraying their later lives, hers, and her close relationship with her witty, wise-cracking mother.

I enjoyed this warm portrait of a girl and her Lithuanian parents, their adopted Midwestern city, and America in the 1960s and 1970s; it’s truly an American story—immigration itself is such an American story, perhaps the American story, along with race, based on that other, forced migration. And the author’s troubled phase made her account feel even more universal.

The book is beautifully produced by University of Chicago Press, which printed one of Markelis’s photographs at the start of each section. Illustrations are unusual in contemporary memoirs, but a nice touch in this one, which I understand is the first memoir about growing up Lithuanian in America.

Next: An interview with author Daiva Markelis about writing her memoir.

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5 Comments

Filed under memoir, REVIEW

5 responses to “Review: ‘White Field, Black Sheep’

  1. Debra Valentino

    Fine summary of a frank and endearing memoir that will keep readers laughing out loud even as it addresses the discomfiture of identity, family, sexuality, addiction, and mortality.

  2. David Stevens

    An excellent review that mirrors my responses to this remarkable memoir. One addition: I laughed, to be sure, but I also cried. Markelis spares herself nothing in this frank and moving chronicle of a Lithuanian and quintessentially American life.

  3. how are you!This was a really brilliant blog!
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  4. daiva markelis

    Thanks for the review, Richard. It helps with the anxiety that authors of first books must feel. And several people (that I don’t know) emailed me to say they’re getting the book because of the review.

  5. Jovita

    My cousin recommended this book. I ordered it today after reading a review.
    I also grew up in Cicero IL, St. Anthony Parish, but a decade earlier, in the 50’s. I can relate to many of the experiences and landmarks.
    I anticipating a very interesting read.