Reviewed by Darcy Munson Meijer (Gabon 1982-84)
I’ve just finished John Guy LaPlante’s book about his stint with the Peace Corps in Ukraine 27 Months in the Peace Corps: My Story, Unvarnished. LaPlante is a fluid writer, and I learned quite a bit, but at 559 pages, the book is way too long.
At age 78, LaPlante became a Peace Corps Volunteer and served from 2007-2009 as an English instructor in Chernihiv. He was the oldest Volunteer serving in the world in Ukraine. LaPlante is a real trooper, a man of heart and goodwill who, in joining the Peace Corps, fulfilled a longtime personal desire to serve the U.S. In addition to his recounting of daily trials and small victories, he frequently asks himself whether the Peace Corps mission is best served by Peace Corps’ policies and practices. I got the impression that LaPlante did an excellent job in his French and English clubs, initiated and implemented two valuable secondary projects, and represented the U.S. in the best way a Volunteer can.
LaPlante is a good writer. He is the author of two travel books: Around the World at 75. Alone, Dammit! And, Around Asia in 80 Days. Oops, 83 days!
For much of his career he was a journalist, and I appreciate his eye for detail. He is especially good at describing elements of Ukrainian life: tiny but neat apartments with blockish exteriors, the national love of chocolate and Vodka, thrift and dizzying inflation, hardworking women and absent husbands, cold and ice, majestic old churches, a mind-boggling transportation system, and the country steadily establishing its new identity. The writer’s style is conversational, so I breezed through the chapters until I got a little more than halfway (page 279) and figured he should start to wrap things up. But it was not to be.
27 Months in the Peace Corps is organized in an unusual way. Each of the chapters deals with a different aspect of his time in Ukraine instead of being chronological in its many facets together. Thus, there are 43 chapters, with topics that include LaPlante’s teaching, his reasons for joining, travels, host families, health, LaPlante’s library project, his metro map project, his SNAC project, and bad press against the Peace Corps. The last several chapters are written for prospective PCVs, which was not of value to me. The writer may have felt this was the best way to organize his book, but in addition to length, it also lead to repetition of names - with some errors - and explanations which, in a chronological narrative, would not have been necessary.
One personal criticism I have with LaPlante is perhaps related to the difference in our ages. He claims at one point that the United States is the greatest country in the world that he has visited. There are so many criteria by which to judge countries (And anyway, is this a race?) that I would never say any one of them is the BEST in the world. In fact, I think Bhutan may be the wisest, with its Human Happiness Index, instead of the GNP standard.
What comes through loud and clear is LaPlante’s enthusiasm and positive attitude. It’s apparent from the busy front cover to the last pages, where he offers to speak about Peace Corps to your “library, church, club, school, bookstore, society, synagogue, picnic association, fraternity or sorority, party, union, resort,, cruise ship, magazine, radio or TV station, gated community … or any other upstanding and friendly gathering.” Perhaps this sums up the book nicely: LaPlante’s eagerness to get his message out to anybody who will listen.
All in all, 27 Months in the Peace Corps provides many interesting details about life in modern Ukraine and gives a balanced view of the pros and cons of Peace Corps Volunteer life, even if it is too wordy.
Darcy Munson Meijer was a TEFL in Gabon from 1982-1984. She currently lives in the United Arab Emirates, where she teaches in the Academic Bridge Program at Zayed University. She has edited a collection of the best Peace Corps/Gabon Volunteer stories, published by Peace Corps Writers and available on Amazon, entitled Adventures in Gabon: Peace Corps Stories from the African Rainforest.