paradise-front-me-140Paradise in Front of Me - Realizing Life’s Beauty in an Unexpected Place
by Kevin G. Finch (Honduras 2004–06)
Peace Corps Writers
$$12.95 (paperback), $4.95 (Kindle)
240 pages
2014

Reviewed by Ben East (Malawi 1996–98)

The recurring image in Kevin G. Finch’s Paradise in Front of Me is that of an impoverished Honduran child looking up at a locked schoolhouse door. Shut out again. The author and the residents of El Paraíso repeatedly find their plans scuttled: by naked madmen in San Juan, cancelled classes in Monte Cristo, failed transportation to Cuyalí, striking teachers, impassable rivers, traveling gringo evangelicals . . . there’s no end to the obstacles in this Honduran state near the border with Nicaragua. “The teachers are on strike,” Finch writes towards the end, “and another day is wasted in the future of Honduras.  The child blinks his eyes to bat away the drops of rain running down from his soaked hair.  He looks left and then right.  Slumping his shoulders, he heads for home, his empty notebook in hand.”

This forlorn image is exactly what makes the collection of vignettes so uplifting at its close.  Finch and his wife Cristina spent two years (minus a Christmas in Virginia) tucked away in the hills of southern Honduras, navigating the frustrations of living where “those in positions to make a difference seem indifferent.”  The two Volunteers defy this apathy with an operational credo of their own, one which mirrors the straightforward, can-do attitude conveyed by the narrative. “We learn to be disappointed for a moment and then plan how we will adjust. We are Paraiseño now, no more, no less.  We live in a Third World town and this means nothing, absolutely nothing, is easy.”  More importantly, having vowed to avoid the same fatalism that paralyzes so many of their neighbors, the two remain sensitive to the fact that for them the difficulties exist only within a defined period.  For the local Paraiseño, hardship lasts a lifetime.

Finch paints close, personal portraits of the people he comes to know through his work as a community development Volunteer, including those who face miserable working conditions on coffee farms, in cigar factories, and behind roadside bars. He presents challenges ranging from the most basic to the most gut-twisting: from chronic tardiness and apathetic parents to high HIV/AIDS prevalence and the reality of childhood death from so basic a problem as diarrhea. His collaboration with young people and civic leaders is inspiring, and his disappointment is palpable when, in quick succession, three of the town’s most capable individuals talk of pulling up stakes for a better life in the United States, a leadership drain sure to pose a setback for the town.

After his elation at receiving word from friends back home that funding is available to establish a library in the town, Finch reaches the real climax.  The students of Kevin and Cristina’s flagship enterprise, their leadership group, gather for a debriefing with the Peace Corps boss, notably one of the few episodes where Peace Corps plays an institutional role in the experience. At the gathering, a formerly confused and defiant fifth grader summarizes her experience with the Volunteers: “When I started this leadership group, I wasn’t happy with who I was.  When I looked in a mirror every day, I didn’t like the person I saw. I was ugly. . . Now, when I look in the mirror, I see someone beautiful. I am beautiful.”

Finch’s format, basically emails and journal entries transcribed into book form, creates a complete experience, especially useful for those with limited understanding of life in the developing world.  But the format also creates awkwardness. I found it jarring, for example, to learn midway through that a major economic activity in El Paraíso is centered on the coffee industry, and that giant coffee roasters dominate the skyline. This major feature of the town isn’t mentioned early on, perhaps, because the narrative there is grappling with all the minute details of a new and overwhelming experience. The immediacy, the shocking newness of it, creates an atmosphere early on that is more eager than insightful. But the narrative improves as the experience deepens, and these minor flaws in the writing are easy enough to overlook when Finch gets down to what he does best: letting the people, the places, and the circumstances of Honduras drive the narrative.

Ben East taught English in Malawi before taking on various teaching and diplomatic assignments with the State Department in West Africa, the Middle East, and throughout the Americas. A native of Connecticut, he recently returned to the U.S. after nearly two decades overseas. He lives in Virginia with his wife (also a Malawi RPCV) and two sons, working up short stories and a few novels for publication. His fiction has appeared in The Foreign Service Journal, Atticus Review, and Umbrella Factory Magazine. He compiles his work here: www.benonbooks.com

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