Can You Hear the People Sing: Michele Young-Stone on the Enduring Spirit of Lithuania

Can You Hear the People Sing: Michele Young-Stone on the Enduring Spirit of Lithuania

In Michele Young-Stone’s Above Us Only Sky, a young girl is born with a pair of wings. Years after they’re surgically removed, she connects with her Lithuanian grandfather and he tells her the story of the magical bird-women of their family. Separated by war, oceans, and time, the gift of wings connects three generations of women in this moving tale. For Young-Stone, setting part of her story against the backdrop of Lithuanian independence was vital to the tale she wanted to tell. Here, she shares the history of the strong and resilient people that inspired her fictional characters.

My novel, Above Us Only Sky, was born on the eastern coast of Florida, but its lineage began and culminated in a little-known Baltic nation called Lithuania. Like my main character, Prudence Vilkas, the Lithuanian people were forgotten by everyone—despite their compelling, rich, and amazingly long history. In the 13th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea and was the largest united nation in Europe. Yet, during the 20th century, the people and their customs were forgotten, silenced, locked up behind the Iron Curtain.

lakesFor centuries prior to invasions by Germanic forces and Teutonic Knights, and even after their nobility’s conversion to Catholicism in the late 14th century, the countryside and most of Lithuania remained pagan. Even today, pagan gods, goddesses, and rituals remain an important part of Lithuania’s national identity.

As the Lithuanians battled invaders, they hid and took refuge in the tall pine trees and lush greenery that dominate the central and eastern landscape. Even after the last freedom fighter died, the forests were haunted with their presence. Walk through these ancient forests today and you will see centuries’ old earthworks, strange mounds, stone and wooden crosses. You’ll see wildflowers, berries, mushrooms, spotted woodpeckers, and around the thousands of lakes that dot this region, there are Greylag geese, loons, ospreys, white-tailed eagles, egrets, and white storks—the kind of big birds the Vilkas family in my novel coveted.

While the Soviet Union tried to eradicate everything Lithuanian, the Lithuanians held onto their identity, whispering the stories, songs, and poetry of their forefathers to their children, even though the price for practicing Lithuanian rituals or using Lithuanian flag colors was a trip to a Soviet Gulag in Siberia. Lithuanians are a musical people, as are my characters—even though the father figure in my novel relishes contemporary music, as a boy he was forced to practice classical music on his violin. Without knowing it, his great love of music is something he inherited from his Lithuanian past. Songs paying homage to Stalin were taught and practiced in an effort to replace traditional Lithuanian music and poetry, and both remain today. One leaves a bitter taste in the mouth and the other brings a tear to the eye. Lithuania’s cultural and national survival is a testament to its people’s strength, and they take great pride in their ability to endure.

In 1987 when Mikhail Gorbachev started to loosen the chokehold on the Baltic States, Lithuanian, Estonian, and Latvian flags were brought out of hiding and people stood along the highways holding hands and singing in their native languages. My friend Dalia was just a girl, but she remembers it clearly. The singing revolution was born.

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Just yesterday, I sat listening to Dalia’s 84 year-old father Albertus, a man who lived through World War II and Stalin, recite Lithuanian poetry, folk tales, and sing Lithuania’s national hymn, and I cried.

Lithuania, her people, her history, her paganism, Catholicism, and landscape were all pivotal to writing Above Us Only Sky. My hope is to one day very soon visit this gem of a nation that I have only known secondhand.

Michele Young-Stone is the author of the novels Above Us Only Sky and The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, which The Boston Globe called “an exceptionally rich and sure-handed debut.” She lives in the Outer Banks of North Carolina with her husband and son.

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