In his debut memoir, Mankus traces his origins as a refugee from war-torn Lithuania during the waning years of World War II, when Russian occupation grimly loomed like the German bombardment that preceded it.
Mankus’ narrative reveals the devastating changes forced on Lithuanian families in the early 1940s, when they measured the benefits of escaping oppression against the inestimable costs of leaving behind their homes, culture and traditions. Mankus uses a direct, unadorned style, sometimes heartbreaking in its simplicity, as in the brief yet poignant scene of his mother giving her beloved cow a kiss goodbye. His tragedy, and that of the many others who fled their homes for squalid displaced-person camps, needs no adornment. The book follows his circuitous path from one such camp to a hardscrabble childhood in New Jersey, where his family settled, then through several false starts in his attempts to make a life for himself as an adult. The pacing can be problematic, however: The story, a strictly chronological account of Mankus’ life, gives equal or disproportionate weight to moments big and small. His father’s imprisonment on manslaughter charges, for running over a man with a military truck while driving drunk, is presented as an aside, but Mankus’ later work as a tax collector for the IRS, which he describes as tedious and mundane, takes up several chapters. And the abrupt, declarative style that works well in describing the atrocities of war comes across as terse and choppy in tender moments, such as his mother’s death: “She died October 10, 1988. She was eighty-two. She’d had a hard life.” At times, the thread that binds the narrative together—Mankus’ struggle to derive identity and meaning from the brutality of his early experiences—is abandoned, leaving readers craving more reflection and deeper insight.
A striking firsthand account of war and the disorientation of the immigrant experience, told candidly and without self-pity by a narrator who has yet to make meaning of it all.