Never Gonna Cease My Wanderin’: Letters Between Friends
by Ruth Kesselring Royal (Philippines 1962-64) and Beryl A. Brinkman (Afghanistan 1967-69)
Peace Corps Writers
Reviewed by Douglas Foley (Philippines 1962-64)
Never Gonna Cease my Wanderin’ is a lovely, heartfelt coming-of-age story of friendship between two female Peace Corps Volunteers. The principal author, Ruth Kesselring Royal (Philippines 1962-64) reconstructs her friendship with Beryl Brinkman (Afghanistan 1967-69) through their extensive correspondence. She supplements the letters with recollections from her journal. To her credit, the edited letters retain much of their original language and tone. I must forewarn the readers that a long string of raw letters may present some reading challenges. The letters meander over many topics and contain a great deal of mundane information. But if readers plunge into the detail, they will find the fascinating narrative threads I am about to suggest.
First, Ms. Royal is telling a story that various women Volunteers have told. Peace Corps service is marked by a substantial “gender gap,” especially when young American women are assigned to remote, traditional rural areas. Her letters convey the raw frustrations, loneliness and self-doubt she experienced struggling with her ill-defined role as a “teachers aide.” It would be easy to read this memoir as an indictment of early Peace Corps Philippines, but before going there, readers should check out a recent publication entitled Answering Kennedy’s Call: Pioneering the Peace Corps in the Philippines. Volunteers and administrators from the first three Philippine groups (1962-64) have put together an impressive documentation of the ups and downs of early Peace Corps Philippines. Ms Royal also has a brief memoir in this volume.
Following the Peace Corps experience theme, Ms Royal and Ms Brinkman seem to have had different experiences. Ms. Royal is quite hard on herself for not learning the local language better or understanding the culture. She feels disconnected and out of place and berates herself as a failed volunteer. She realizes that her experience as a sheltered ex-pat of missionary parents did not prepare her for living alone overseas. She imagines the rest of her group as much more successful than she is. Ms. Royal longs for someone to communicate with honestly. To a degree, her loneliness seems to feed traditional gender beliefs that a woman needs a male partner in life. This leads her to fantasize about an old college friend and a fellow volunteer. Nevertheless, she also longs to be independent, creative, and free; hence she provides us with a vivid portrait of a young woman growing up between two cultural eras. Ms. Royal’s letters are so sincere and honest, only a cynic or someone bored with the human condition would dismiss her youthful romantic fantasies as a predictable soap opera. She is simply telling it like it was for her, a messy, confusing time when she was searching for herself.
In contrast, Ms. Brinkman, who had practically never “left the farm,” gallops joyfully from one adventure to the next. Her letters are much less introspective and philosophical and generally more upbeat. Like the strong willed, pragmatic farm girl she was, she plows through her Peace Corps assignment to inoculate Afghan villagers. Her letters are mostly about doing her job well and enjoying it. At the risk of psychologizing both, one cannot help but speculate that they are each other’s alter ego. They take turns cheering each other up, giving advice and encouragement on what the other lacks. And they share a mutual fantasy about one man from their college peer group. They speculate on who will end up with him. Like true friends, each is ready and willing to give their “prize” to the other. Quite ironically, the male prize becomes a Peace Corps Philippines volunteer and stays in-country another eight years. He drifts from one misadventure to another and never fulfills the hopes and fears of these young women. And like most women, they move forward with their lives and leave Mr. Right behind.
As a cultural anthropologist, I was drawn to the second main narrative strand in the letters. Ms. Royal astutely situates her correspondence with Ms. Brinkman within their college peer group at a small, Christian-oriented Midwestern college. Five principal characters, which I found surprisingly liberal, slip in and out of the letters. After college they dated communally, dated African-Americans, accepted gays, opposed the Viet Nam war, and ultimately lived rather unconventional lives. Some came out of the closet; others rode motorcycles; some smoked dope and grew their hair long; most did public service work. Bright, poetic, thoughtful young women like Ruth and Beryl, although anchored in traditional missionary and farm families, struggled against traditional gender norms to be free, unique individuals. This highly personal memoir is also a flesh and blood account of America’s cultural evolution.
I would close by saying this book will probably never appear on Oprah’s list, or garner a large popular audience, but it has many important lessons for both men and women. It is also a wonderful gift to the friends and family of these women. They reveal secrets about themselves that most people hide, lest they spoil their image as a “good parent” or a “strong person.” They recount life as it is, full of contradictions and chaos, a glorious struggle. Ms Royal and Ms. Brinkman did what they could to become decent human beings. THAT is what makes this strange little book special.
Douglas Foley (Philippines 1962-64) has been a Professor of Anthropology and of Education at the University of Texas at Austin since 1970. He is the former editor of the Anthropology and Education Quarterly and the International Journal of Qualitative studies in Education. During his career he specialized in cultural studies of schooling, social movements, and race relations in the United States. He has published six books and sixty articles and chapters. His most recent ethnographies include Learning Capitalist Culture: Deep in the Heart of Tejas, 2nd edition, 2010, University of Pennsylvania Press and The Heartland Chronicles, expanded version, 2003, University of Pennsylvania Press. He will be retiring to Austin, Texas and to Guanajuato, Mexico in May, 2012. He can be contacted via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.