Reviewed by Reilly Ridgell (Micronesia 1971–73)
THERE ARE SOME 32 PEACE CORPS NOVELS listed in the Peace Corps Worldwide bibliography. I’ve now read four and written one. From that small sample, I’m beginning to detect some patterns that may hinder us Peace Corps novelists from achieving the success we dream of. Generally speaking, the Peace Corps novels that I’ve read tend to be long on setting and short on plot. In fact, and I was guilty of this, the plot tends to be a vehicle with which to provide the reader with all kinds of information about the Peace Corps experience. Sometimes we end up with novels that read like memoirs. We are just so affected by our time in Peace Corps and how different life can be somewhere other than a US suburb that we want to share that with the world. Unfortunately, not everyone cares.
David Mather has written a decent effort, One for the Road, set in the Andes foothills in rural southern Chile. His descriptions are clear and we get a good picture of the physical beauty of the countryside and a lifestyle without plumbing or electricity. He also has created some interesting characters. The writing is adequate but didn’t really rock me, and I haven’t been able to put my finger on why. Mather’s prose is functional but certainly not poetic at all. Note this passage from the first chapter, a sequence actually near the end of the story after which the book jumps back to the beginning:
As they sat there gazing out at the volcanoes, he thought of all the changes in his life — not the least of which was becoming engaged to this beautiful young woman. He vividly recalled when he walked up into those hills with Bob for the first time. Had it really been over two years ago? He laughed and shook his head.
There’s nothing really wrong with this paragraph, but how about a description of the volcanoes? They are mentioned a lot throughout the book. This is the perfect opportunity to set a visual tone for the story. Come to think of it, I don’t remember if he ever describes the volcanoes in detail. If he did, it wasn’t memorable. But, then again, I’m focusing here on setting, and overall Mather does a good job with that. It’s the plot that could be criticized as just a series of events that happen to the main character. The author does use the road as a focal point to tie the plot together, but it doesn’t always work. The book was, however, well edited as I noticed only one grammar mistake and saw no typos at all.
The story centers on the experience of Peace Corps Volunteer Tom Young. We follow along as, newly arrived, he struggles with the language and the culture. Slowly but surely, he begins to succeed. In fact, by the last few chapters, he had become the kind of super-Volunteer who embodies the image Peace Corps loves. He’d become fluent in Spanish, had been accepted by the people, had helped them do something tangible in planting trees, had helped them make their most important improvement by helping fix their main road, had the opportunity to ride around on horses to get anywhere (how cool is that?), and had won the heart of the most beautiful eligible girl in the settlement.
But, to be fair, it wasn’t all love and accomplishments. He also almost committed suicide, was attacked once with a club and once with a knife, and suffered a great loss. Though some of the scenarios seem a bit contrived, Mather has woven in some deeper layers into the emotions and dreams of the main characters, especially their hopes for the future. By the end of the book Tom is preparing to join a club, that of the Volunteers who never leave and marry into the culture. As he ponders this possibility, we are left to wonder how well he could pull it off. And the poignant ending leaves us wondering about life itself, whether in Chile or the United States. I know two Volunteers who never left Chuuk in Micronesia. I stayed a couple of extra years, but I knew when it was time to leave. Fortunately I found a good compromise in Guam — still in Micronesia but heavily Americanized. There was no such compromise for Tom and his bride.
At times the plot bogs down in way too much detail about such things as, for example, the process of making charcoal. OK, I get it, it’s hard work. And as I read it, I thought about the reviewer who slammed my own novel for the very same thing. I could see Mather sitting by his computer with a check list of things he wanted to include and possible places in the story where he could drop them in. And I thought about the former PCV who loved my book, and said it had everything in there, but then added “but I don’t know why anybody who was not in Peace Corps would be interested.”
For present and former Peace Corps Volunteers, those who are thinking about becoming Volunteers, and those who are interested in worlds outside the United States, One for the Road will be interesting. For everybody else, it should be.
Reilly Ridgell is the author of the widely used textbook, Pacific Nations and Territories and co-author of its elementary level version, Pacific Neighbors. He also wrote the anthology of Peace Corps stories, Bending to the Trade Winds, and his own Peace Corps novel, Green Pearl Odyssey.