Helen Papanikolas: When Manoli Turned His Coat Inside Out and Called Himself Manolio by E. D. Karampetsos


By E. D. Karampetsos

Published in the Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora, September 2002 - Volume 28.2, , pages 57-85


"Helen Papanikolas's historical work and her fiction about the Greek immigrants who came to Utah at the beginning of the twentieth century and their children is not always easy to read because she contradicts many of the reader's expectations. She has never indulged in easy-to-digest, idealized tales of grateful immigrants falling into the loving embrace of generous Mother America. Born in 1917, Papanikolas experienced too much of the immigrant history she writes about, in particular the mistreatment of her own people, to be satisfied with the prettified tales preferred by Hollywood. She lived through the Carbon County Strike of 1922, in which Greek coal miners sought better work conditions and union representation. That same year she watched from the front of her house as members of the Klu Klux Klan attacked Greek-owned businesses. On the way to school in 1924, after the deadly explosion at Castle Gate Mine Number 2, too young to fully comprehend the enormity of the resulting suffering, she went to school each day in the company of black-garbed Greek children who had lost their fathers. At school her compulsion to excel had to overcome the physical and psychological barriers created by bigoted teachers and administrators.

Papanikolas has also refused to give sentimentalized accounts of the home life of Greek immigrants. Her stories provoke questions many would rather ignore. Were our immigrant parents, in particular our mothers, happy in arranged marriages? What was the effect of living in a society that treated Greeks as a decadent, inferior people? Why did the traditional Greek folk culture fail in so many ways to prepare immigrants and their children to respond to the challenges posed by America? As Thomas Doulis has written, "No one seems to give quarter in her stories. The sentimentality that many Greek American writers treasure is an unknown quantity to Helen Papanikolas" (159). Yet, in spite of her sometimes grim realism, there surges an expression of love and concern for the culture of our immigrant forefathers so powerful that it seems to surprise even Papanikolas.

Greek immigrants—and especially their children—were subjected to a variety of complex and conflicting forces that left them uncomfortable and feeling out of place both at home and in their adopted country. One solution, simple yet not always satisfactory, was to reject one identity and embrace the other. . . . . "