Marie Elverine Arana, teacher and central figure in ‘American Chica,’ dies at 97

Marie Elverine Arana, a onetime music teacher whose life of determined adventure and intellectual ambition made her a central figure in her daughter’s memoir about a bicultural childhood split between the United States and Peru, died Oct. 18 at her home in Potomac. She was 97.

She had thyroid cancer, said her daughter Marie Arana, the former editor of The Washington Post’s Book World and the author of “American Chica” and other books.

Mrs. Arana grew up on the Kansas prairies, was trained as a violinist in Seattle and Boston, and later lived for almost 15 years in her husband’s native Peru. She had lived in the Washington area for the past 27 years.

Marie Elverine Clapp was born in Washington, Kan., on Nov. 2, 1913, and was the daughter of a dental surgeon. She had two early marriages — at 16 and 20 — that were annulled. She studied political science at the University of Washington before switching to music, with a concentration on the violin.

She graduated from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle.

Before World War II, Mrs. Arana owned a beauty salon in San Francisco and learned to a fly an airplane. Her third husband, Frank Campbell, a member of the Canadian air force, died in 1943 during World War II.

Mrs. Arana then settled in Boston, where she studied violin at the Boston Conservatory and often took the place of her teacher, a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in orchestra rehearsals.

The conservatory shared a dining hall with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and it was there that Mrs. Arana met her future husband, a Peruvian graduate student of engineering. She and Jorge Arana Cisneros were married in January 1945 and soon moved to Peru, where they lived on sugar plantations and raised their three children.

Her husband’s large family and the new customs Mrs. Arana encountered in South America are a strong theme of “American Chica,” which was published in 2001 and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

“How could my mother know,” her daughter wrote in her memoir, “when she pledged her love to my father on the Fenway, that she would be dropped in to the heart of a familia where what was wanted of her was not her American stock in trade — her independence — but a clear understanding of three things: the primacy of a Peruvian family, a young wife’s role in it, and the dominion of the Latin male?”

Mrs. Arana taught her children at home, insisting that they learn English as thoroughly as the Spanish with which they were surrounded.

“She was the only English-speaking person we knew,” her daughter Marie said in an e-mail. “Our world was in Spanish, but her home school was in English.”

Mrs. Arana set a high standard of intellectual achievement, which all of her children would follow.

“She took Italian lessons, studied Russian, memorized poetry, read philosophy with the fervor of a hermit sage,” her daughter wrote in “American Chica.”

In 1959, the Arana family settled in Summit, N.J., so the children could attend American schools. Mrs. Arana gave private piano and violin lessons, while her husband worked as a globe-trotting engineer. By the early 1970s, after their children had completed high school, Mrs. Arana and her husband moved back to Peru and later lived in Brazil, Colombia and Paris. They settled in Bethesda in 1984.

Mrs. Arana’s husband died in February at 92.

Survivors include three children, Victoria Arana of Potomac, the former chairman of the English department at Howard University, George Winston Arana of Bethesda, a top official of the Veterans Health Administration, and Marie Arana of Washington; six grandchildren; and two great-grandsons.

Recalling how her mother would recite poetry and create an English-language haven in a Spanish-speaking world, her daughter wrote in “American Chica”: “I would lie big-eyed, starstruck, as she spun visions of a faraway country where cowboys reigned, valleys were green, wildflowers sprang from the feet of great oaks . . . and sidewalks winked with radiant flecks of mica.”