To The Far Side of Planet Earth: A Peace Corps Memoir
by Jim McConkey (India 1967-69)
Reviewed by Reilly Ridgell (Micronesia 1971–73)
AS MOST WRITERS KNOW there is nothing more important than the firsts: the first chapter, the first page, the first paragraph, the first sentence, and sometimes even the first word. These are so important because they either catch the reader’s attention, hooking him or her so they’ll want to read on, or else turn the reader off, and they don’t buy and read the book. Jim McConkey learned that lesson well, and his first chapter is a clinic on how to capture a reader’s interest while setting up the rest of the book as well.
What McConkey has created here is sort of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance meets Paul Theroux. Like a good travel writer, McConkey takes us and sets us down in rural back-village India in the late ’60s. We feel every bump of the bus rides, taste the red dust born on a hot wind, and smell the curry. He also gives us great characters. There are HCNs who are admirable and others who are a pain. He gives us his fellow Volunteers and PC staff. We experience his effort and frustration dealing with the local farmers, whom he was supposed to help. And he describes well the few women with whom the PCVs interacted in a culture where such interaction had to be done pretty carefully. We are there with him throughout this novel-like memoir. But McConkey digs much deeper. He acquires a respect for Indian culture, as maddening as it sometimes seems to a Westerner like him. He learns to appreciate their sense of everything being in a cycle. If a train crash happens, it was supposed to happen, because it happened before and will happen again. He adapts to their hierarchical society, fitting himself in at the proper level and treating people differently depending on their caste and it’s relation to his artificial caste. He learns the system and how to survive in it, learning to speak Telugu as well.
But as time goes by, things begin to spiral out of control. With the draft and the real threat of being sent to Vietnam hanging over his head, his comparison of Eastern and Western philosophy begins to pull him down into an existential panic. McConkey does a very good job of setting this up, and it would be difficult to explain all of it in this short review. He is heavily influenced by a largely discredited anthropology book (African Genesis by Robert Ardrey), and his dope-addled thoughts take him to the brink of realization that life is a trap with only one way out, reincarnation notwithstanding. And it is culture itself that defines insanity.
Overall, this is a very well written and produced book. I found only a handful of typos. There are a few drawings and several grainy black and white photos. Unfortunately, neither the drawings nor the photos have captions. It would have been nice for me as a reader to identify the characters in the photos I’d been reading about. In places, I found his attitude a bit naïve. He is almost apologetic about caste, as if since it’s been in place for thousands of years it works and should be left alone. This is in contradiction to the laws of India that have tried to abolish it, and the experience of overseas Indian communities in places such as Guam and Fiji where they get rid of caste as soon as they arrive in a new place. And although Hindus may not slap a mosquito, they do not hesitate to slaughter Moslems (and are slaughtered by them in turn) in such conflicts as when India and Pakistan were partitioned or when both claim a particular holy site. Finally, I don’t like the title. You’d think, after taking more than 40 years to get this finalized and published, he could have come up with a better title.
But if you want a real taste of the Peace Corps experience in India in the late ’60s, together with a cultural and philosophical discourse well worth the read, then I highly recommend To the Far Side of Planet Earth.
Reilly Ridgell (Micronesia 1971–73) is the author of the widely used textbook, Pacific Nations and Territories, in print since 1983, and co-author of its elementary level version, Pacific Neighbors. He also is the author of the novel, Green Pearl Odyssey, and the collection of Peace Corps stories, Bending to the Trade Winds.
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