The Peace Corps Volunteer as character
From the first days of the agency, Peace Corps Volunteers have been rich characters for novels not written by PCVs. The first books about the Peace Corps were young adult novels. In 1963, Breaking the Bonds: A Novel about the Peace Corps, written by Sharen Spence, had a short introduction by Sargent Shriver and was dedicated to “All Peace Corps Volunteers serving the world with discipline, determination, endurance, and a rare idealism.” This novel is set in Nigeria. Then in 1965 came a series of young adult novels entitled Kathy Martin: Peace Corps Nurse, about a Volunteer in Africa. Another “nursing novel” for a YA audience was written by Rachel G. Payes and published by Avalon Books in 1967.
In 1968 came the most popular of all “Peace Corps novels,” The Zinzin Road, by the very successful commercial novelist and political writer, Fletcher Knebel, who had worked briefly as a Peace Corps evaluator. He set his novel in Liberia, which he had visited in 1963. Several “real” Volunteers appear as characters.
In 1975 came the very funny Native Intelligence by Raymond Sokolov, who based his novel on stories told to him by his sister and brother-in-law, two PCVs who had served in Chad.
A steady stream of novels has followed. The most important of them, in terms of focusing on Volunteers as characters, are: Tama Janowitz’s A Cannibal in Manhattan (1987) about a Volunteer who brings a cannibal home to New York as her husband; Richard Dooling’s White Man’s Grave (1994), another black comedy that involves a missing Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa; and Carter Coleman’s The Volunteer (1998), that focuses on a Volunteer building fish ponds in Tanzania who becomes involved with a beautiful, young school girl. Most recently (2001), Anita Shreve’s The Last Time They Met is partially set in Kenya and has as a character a young married woman Volunteer having an affair with her high school boyfriend. Also in 2001 was the first novel by noted Malaysian poet, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, entitled Joss & Gold that has a Peace Corps Volunteer subduing and abandoning a married graduate student TA in Malaysia. She loses her husband, has the PCV’s child, and her daughter searches for her true identity.