For those of you living in the DC area, Stan Meisler will be talking about his new book, When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years, at Politics and Prose — 5015 Conn. Ave. NW, Washington — on Sunday, February 27, at 5 p.m.
Archives for New books
Laurence Leamer’s (Nepal 1965-67) next book will be The Price of Justice, a nonfiction legal thriller telling the story of a coal giant CEO who sets out to destroy a small mine owner in West Virginia.
Being First: An Informal History of the Early Peace Corps
by Robert Klein (Ghana 1961–63)
Reviewed by Kevin Lowther (Sierra Leone 1963–65)
GHANA I — Peace Corps groups were Roman-numeraled in the early years — began with 58 trainees at the University of California at Berkeley. It was July 1961, four months after President John F. Kennedy asked R. Sargent Shriver to establish the Peace Corps. The 58 guinea pigs and their trainers were all too aware that the experiment could rise or fall on the basis of their performance.
“That challenge,” Robert Klein writes in Being First, “created a sense of uniqueness which has lasted through the years.” Fifty years, of course, and counting.
Klein was a 32-year-old teacher in Harlem when he volunteered. Kennedy’s summons “added a moral dimension” to Klein’s “restless romanticized adventurism.” The group supposedly had been sifted through a fine mesh of selection criteria. Klein et al had their doubts. “Although we were constantly told how select a group of trainees we were, the haste with which we had been gathered led us to believe that, in fact, we were probably the first 58 people who had applied to the Peace Corps.”
This tongue-in-cheek wit infuses Klein’s breezy and well-written account of Ghana I, its exemplary service and its enduring cohesion. Over the years, Klein has interviewed Ghana I veterans, former trainers and staff to reconstruct what he calls an “informal history” of the Peace Corps’ formative period.
Klein and his Ghana I comrades make no claim to being anything other than the first PCVs on foreign soil. What is remarkable, in Klein’s telling, is how closely their frustrations and fragile achievements foretold what was to come for the 200,000-plus Volunteers who have followed. He captures the tension which arose, almost immediately, between early Peace Corps staff who emphasized “doing a job” and those who believed that making friends across cultural barriers was the litmus test for Volunteers’ effectiveness.
When he visited his pioneers in Ghana, Shriver — according to one Volunteer’s recollection — was explicit: The job was paramount. But Franklin Williams and Richard Goodwin, headquarters heavies who accompanied Shriver, flogged a very different message: The primary objective was to counter the image of foreign aid workers’ cultural insensitivity, searingly portrayed in the The Ugly American, a novel published just three years earlier.
Shriver was well aware of the jousting he was encouraging between pragmatic, program-oriented staff such as Warren Wiggins and John Alexander, who had come over from the forerunner of USAID; and, in Klein’s words, “more idealistic global thinkers,” such as Harris Wofford and Bill Moyers.
George Carter, the first country director in Ghana, referred to these contending camps as the “hard heads” and the “soft heads.” Wiggins, a hard head who had helped to crystallize the Peace Corps’ mission in “The Towering Task,” believed that Volunteers should focus on achieving concrete development objectives. The soft heads were more enamored by the prospect of Volunteers working shoulder-to-shoulder with the people and demonstrating Americans’ supposedly innate egalitarianism.
Both groups, Klein writes, “were ultimately hostage to the reality that it was people like me, less ideological and more activist, who would actually decide what a Peace Corps Volunteer was by being one.”
Carter, whom Klein interviewed a few years before his death in 2001, confessed that he thought Kennedy’s proposed Peace Corps was a “piece of nonsense.” An experienced Africa hand, Carter was hoping for an ambassadorship in West Africa and believed that sending naïve, mostly white “kids” to Africa was asking for trouble. Shriver, of course, convinced him otherwise. So did Ghana I.
The group, who met with President Kennedy in the White House rose garden shortly before departing, were hardly representative of the American demographic. Just two were African-American. A white Virginian was the only Southerner. Nor did they meet the qualifications set by Ghana’s skeptical Ministry of Education. Ghana wanted only teachers with master’s degrees, preferably in math and science. The ministry expressly asked that Volunteers be graduates from leading Ivy League universities. Late in the day, two academics involved in the training had to presume upon their friendship with Ghana’s leader, Kwame Nkrumah, to persuade him to accept the motlier crew assembled by the Peace Corps.
Shriver, Nkrumah and the members of Ghana I in fact shared a common vision of the Peace Corps’ raison d’etre: To do jobs that needed doing and for which there were no qualified Ghanaians. The Ghana government underscored this by insisting that it pay the Volunteers’ salaries.
Klein, who later directed the Peace Corps program in Ghana and innovated in-country training, abstains from editorializing about the Peace Corps in its longer-term or contemporary contexts. He is content to recall how the Peace Corps came to be, his experience as a Volunteer in remote western Ghana and the memories of several of his compatriots. He dedicates Being First to the Ghanaians “who had the grace and charm to put up with us. . . .”
Sarge would have loved that.
Kevin G. Lowther taught secondary school history as a member of Sierra Leone IV (1963–65). He subsequently served in several headquarters positions, principally in the Africa regional office. In 1970, he assisted C. Payne Lucas in establishing Africare and later managed its Southern Africa programs for 29 years before retiring in 2007. In 1978, he and Lucas published Keeping Kennedy’s Promise, a critical analysis of the Peace Corps during its first decade. More recently, Lowther has written a biography of a Sierra Leonean who survived slavery in America and returned to his homeland to fight the slave trade. The African American Odyssey of John Kizell, to be released May 15 by the University of South Carolina Press, is available for pre-order on Amazon.com.
To order Being First: An Informal History of the Early Peace Corps from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support our awards.
Exploring Hong Kong: A Visitor’s Guide to Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories
by Steven K. Bailey (Poland 1993–95)
The Insider’s Guide to the Peace Corps: What to Know Before You Go
(2nd edition of So, You Want to Join the Peace Corps)
by Dillon Banerjee (Cameroon 1994–96)
Ten Speed Press
One World:A Global Anthology of Short Stories
Skye Brannon (Samoa 2004–06), contributor
The Man Who Caught No Birds
by Thomas Burns (Marshall Island 1976–78)
Roman Proud, Wayward Widower
by Tino Calabia (Peru 1963–65)
A Year on the Bus
by Dan Close (Ethiopia 1964–66)
The Tamarac Press
Main Street to Mainframes: Landscape and Social Change in Poughkeepsie
by Harvey Flad (Nigeria 1963–65) and Clyde Griffen
State University of New York Press
Peace Corps Chronology: 1961–2010
by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 1975–77)
Greetings From Jungleland: A Memoir
(Peace Corps experience)
by Michael Fortner (Togo 1994–97)
by Susan Powell Miller (Thailand 1961–1964)
Cactus Wren Publishing
Angels of Mercy: White Women and the History of New York’s Colored Orphan Asylum
by William Seraile (Ethiopia 1963–65)
Mary Tuthill Lindheim: Art and Inspiration
edited by Abby Wasserman, with essays by Abby Wasserman, Maria Porges and Aram Fischer
Cameron + Company, Inc.
A Year on the Bus
by Dan Close (Ethiopia 1966-68)
Warren, VT: Tamarac Press
Reviewed by Don Messerschmidt (Nepal 1963-65)
THIS IS A SMALL BOOK THAT DESERVES a short, but positive review. In the space of 131 small pages, with a slightly larger than usual font, the author convinced me that this is a good book for a lot of folks. Have you ever been “caught” behind a school bus when you have to get somewhere fast? he asks. Are you, or have you ever been, a school bus driver? Are you the parent of a kid on a school bus? Were you ever a kid on a bus? If any of these questions are you, then, this book is for you. And, I’ll add, if you know a school bus driver, give him or her a copy. If only for laughs, because this is a funny, fast and wise little read.
It’s serious, too, at informing us how school bus drivers are chosen and trained, how their buses are driven, maintained and kept safe, and how the driver deals with mechanical and kid (passenger) problems. He also describes what he sees from the bus, the common and uncommon happenings in the small mountain towns of northern Vermont . . . and, what he does (or doesn’t) do with the bus. Like the time he (didn’t) hit the mail box. The home owner said he did, and wanted it paid for. But the bus driver was innocent, though it took some doing to prove it.
Dan writes about driving a bus during the school year of 2008–2009, month by month. He expresses great respect for the students he carried to and from school. “I like the kids,” he says. It’s a good start, for if he didn’t like kids his bus driving days would have been miserable. “I like seeing them every morning,” he goes on. “I like seeing them change and grow. I like their silliness and their grand funks and their interactions. I like watching them form bonds, form society. Society is being forged on this bus every day. The afternoon run home is like a decompression chamber for them. They get to interact in a way that they cannot during the school day or when they get home. And since spring is in the air [it was March], they do interact. Oh, yes . . .” and a lot more.
He also expresses great respect for the team in the school district that supports school bus operations and keeps the schools functioning overall. He calls them Bedrock. “Over the year,” he writes, “I met extraordinary people: drivers, mechanics, cafeteria workers, custodians, road crews, firemen, police, teachers aides — all of them the bedrock upon which this nation operates. They do their jobs quietly for the most part, out of the limelight. They do those jobs well . . .”
“And the bus rolled on.” It’s a fast read, and when you’re done, pass it on to a bus driver near you to enjoy.
Don Messerschmidt, PhD, is an anthropologist, rural development consultant, writer and editor, with several books (non-fiction) to his credit. He is past editor of ECS Nepal magazine (Kathmandu), and now serves as contributing editor and part-time mentor to young Nepalese writers. He makes his home near Portland, Oregon when he’s not off leading treks in the Himalayas.
To order A Year on the Bus from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support our awards.
The Man Who Caught No Birds
by Thomas Burns (Marshall Islands 1976–78)
Reviewer Reilly Ridgell (Micronesia 1971–73)
WHEN I WRITE STORIES SET IN MICRONESIA where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer, all my main characters are American. Host country nationals are often peripheral or secondary characters because my stories are ultimately about how Americans relate to the culture and lifestyle of the host country. For myself — though someday I might try — I feel uncomfortable putting a Micronesian as a main character because I don’t feel confident that I can accurately portray his or her aspirations, moods, thought processes, etc. As much as we get to know the culture, language, and people of the countries where we are stationed, we’re still Americans and we still view their world through American eyes.
Thomas Burns has written a novel set in the Marshall Islands where there are no American characters. Zero. Zip. Nada. Every character is a Marshallese islander. This is an ambitious undertaking, and subject to the criticism of being even somewhat arrogant or at least condescending. For example, I was bothered by the tone of the dialogue. It sounded a bit off, almost like oversimplified English dialogue spoken by a Native American character in a bad western movie, but it wasn’t really simplified. The sentences were complete, the grammar correct. Then I finally figured it out. Look at the following:
“I am making copra with my family. Do you think the ship is really nearby?” Ahni asked.
“I do not know. I did not see it. It has to come soon, though.”
Notice Burns is not using any contractions. “I am” instead of “I’m”, “I do not know” instead of “I don’t know”,” I did not see it,” instead of “I didn’t see it.” He is consistent with this style throughout the book: no contractions in the dialogue. This gives a strange texture to the speech. I guess he was looking for a convention by which he could set his characters off as not being American. In truth they would have been speaking Marshallese to each other, thus his dialogue is an English representation of what they really would have said. So they speak English, but it sounds different, so we realize they are Marshallese. But it still feels odd.
That aside, Burns has hit the nail on the head in terms of the painful choices young Marshallese men and women have to make. The old ways are dying, the new ones are confusing and ineffective. Their culture is based on extended families who share everything out of necessity for survival. But the money economy has taken its toll.
Simply put, the islanders needed each other to survive, but they strove mightily to keep their need for survival from getting in the way of their desire to live well.
Unfortunately that often led to the “crabs in the bucket” situation where when someone starts to get ahead, the others pull them down.
And for the people in the outer islands, the district centers beckon with their bright lights, cold drinks, booze, gambling, stores, and restaurants. Beckoning from even further is the United States, where thousands of Micronesians, including Marshallese, have emigrated due to the provisions of the Compacts of Free Association that allow them to live and work in the U.S.
Burns’ main character, Ahni, acquires a nickname he despises, “The Man Who Caught No Birds,” due to an empty-handed hunting experience. He wants to stay on his island, fish, and become a navigator. Unfortunately his mentor, while a good fisherman, never finished his own navigator training. Everything seems to go wrong for Ahni, who ends up leaving his outer island for the district center, becomes a taxi driver, then serves on a ship, but finally ends up finding his way with the help of a missionary school. Along the way Burns does an excellent job of describing the lifestyles of outer islands and district centers and focusing on the changes wrought by the outside world and the money economy. The aimlessness and fatalism experienced by Ahni, who wonders if he really is in control of his life, is actually repeated thousands of times over throughout Micronesia — and perhaps much of the Third World.
The writing is good , and the story moves along quite well with many interesting characters and well developed conflicts.
I noticed only a couple of typos, and the right margin is not justified, which sometimes leaves annoying long blank spaces at the end of a line. Remember typesetting? No publisher is indicated in the book, but Burns’ website links it to CreateSpace.
All in all, Burns has done a credible job of illuminating the myriad of issues precipitated by the cultural change in the Marshalls (and all of Micronesia) resulting from the intrusion of world powers, including the United States. The ending seemed a bit too easy, but Burns has produced a worthwhile effort. Whether Marshallese readers would feel his characterizations are accurate is another question.
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 Bending to the Trade Winds: Stories of the Peace Corps Experience in Micronesia and the novel, Green Pearl Odyssey. He is currently a dean at Guam Community College.
To order The Man Who Caught No Birds from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support our awards.
A Longing for Wisdom: One Woman’s Conscience and Her Church
by Patricia S. Taylor Edmisten (Peru 1962–64)
Reviewed by Paula Hamilton (NPCV)
PATRICIA S. TAYLOR EDMISTEN’S BOOK resonated with me — as I think it will with other Catholic women searching for their place in the Catholic Church of the 21st century. Like her, I was born into a Catholic family, educated in Catholic schools through college, have numerous friends who are priests, and love my Church. Also like her, I struggle with the dictates and the behavior of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, especially in their refusal to understand that we, women and the laity generally, are the Church.
The author articulates her views through numerous genre of literature: memoirs, poems, stories, passages of scripture, and essays, many written earlier in her life. They express a unifying theme: a growing discomfort resulting from questions, doubts, and anger over the perceived injustices against women in the Church, that same Church which she not only needs but loves. In the Preface — the first sentence of which contains 29 lines of text and is grammatically tortuous — Edmisten follows her conscience in decrying “the failure of the hierarchy of mainstream churches to recognize the contributions of women in the history of the Church; the widely accepted relegation of women to peripheral, rather than central, roles within churches and the unexamined ‘disease’(unease) of the hierarchy and some priests exhibit toward sexuality — their own and women’s — contributing to injustice within the Church and society … “ She needs a first-rate copy editor, not only here but elsewhere as well.
Edmisten expresses doubts about publishing her unhappy and questioning thoughts about the Church. She wonders if she is worthy or qualified to “pronounce judgment on those who have affected two thousand years of tradition.” Will she cause scandal and hurt?
Through her powerful and sometimes melancholy prose and poetry, Edmisten avoids “pronouncing judgment” and her book should not create a scandal. Her views are transparent, but they are voiced with respect. She allows the reader to decide for him or herself. The ideas and thoughts here are not are not new or scandalous, but they should evoke thoughtfulness and, occasionally, anger on the part of the reader.
Initially I was not captured by the writing. Parts of the Preface and the first couple of pieces on Mary, Hagar, and Mary of Magdala lacked poignancy. I was irritated by the author’s erroneous portrayal, at least twice in the book, of Mary of Magdala as a “prostitute” and as a “woman who had sinned in the flesh.” Mary has been unjustly maligned since the fourth century, yet nowhere in scripture has she been identified as a public sinner or a “prostitute.”
But when the author transitioned to contemporary Madonnas, I became intrigued, drawn in by the understated power of Edmisten’s writing. Even the five themes of her book are powerful: Madonnas, Neither Male nor Female, Impure Places, Lamentations, and Anticipating Grace. She is searching, actually longing, for answers, better behavior, and an end to the injustices perpetrated against women by the Church. And she is doing so in thought-provoking writings. In her essay, “The Tragedy of Abortion,” she takes on the Church’s stand against abortion and birth control as being against “natural law,” and in the same essay questions the sexual abuse by priests and others, concluding that “the Church should compare the ’sin’ of condoms and the thwarting of sperm with the prevalence of sexually violent acts against children and women that truly violate natural law.”
In her quest for wisdom, Edmisten brings the reader along with her. Her poetry and prose clearly delineate the ambivalence many face with the church: both love of the Scripture and the Eucharist and anger at the injustices. I will recommend this book to my Church reading group.
Paula Hamilton, wife of Robert Hamilton (Ethiopia 1965–67) is Director of Sanctuary for Sacred Arts, a non-profit to save and promote religious art, based in Portland, Oregon. She has been a librarian for 30 years and is currently consulting with architects to design and automate libraries.
To order Longing for Wisdom: One Woman’s Conscience and Her Church from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support our awards.
Reviewed by Robert E. Hamilton (Ethiopia 1965–67)
IF YOU ARE INTERESTED in enhancing your own personal health but are not a zealot about it — that is, you are not a member of the “health nut choir” — read Gene Stone’s “Afterward” first. The zealots will buy and read this book for their own reasons. The rest of us, though, who drive cars but don’t read Road and Track magazine, who want to be healthier without purchasing a library of “how to” publications, will be particularly interested in Stone’s two observations in the “Afterward” which link the “health secrets” of the 25 people included in his book. Stone says that his interviewees have been successful in staying healthy because they found an exercise or health practice which: (1) works for them; and (2) they practice it consistently.
“The road to good health,” Stone writes, “is paved with simple, low-or-no cost techniques.” The reader smiles however, having just previously read that Stone — a writer specializing in health issues (e.g. Engine 2 Diet) — “has undergone dozens of treatments from hypnotherapy to biofeedback, rolfing to Ayuvedic herbal rejuvenation.” Simple? Low-or-no cost? The dust jacket alone qualifies as a workout as one jogs through references to the 25 “secrets” of good health which are to follow.
You can smile — but don’t scoff unless you have seriously interviewed 100 people about their own secrets to “excellent health” and selected the 25 possessing “the most worthwhile secrets to health.” Even after personally testing numerous ways to stay mentally alert and physically healthy, Stone had another goal: He wanted to eliminate colds and various types of flu which still visited him periodically. His stable of 25 did not always avoid contracting a cold, but their individual health secrets made the cold a short-term visitor. He had already read and spoken to health care professionals, but he decided to solicit the advice of non-professionals who were living practitioners of their secrets and who successfully avoided, or minimized, the common cold and flu.
Each secret “makes sense and has a proven scientific underpinning,” he asserts. These include food (garlic, vitamin C), exercise (lift weights, stretch), environmental (understand germs), emotional (talk to friends), and physical secrets (nap, cold showers). “Chicken soup really works,” he concludes. Enjoy the anecdotal description of dunking your head daily in warm hydrogen peroxide as Bill Thompson does. Yoga is old stuff, but it still works to enhance the immune system, lower blood pressure, and help overcome depression and anxiety. Stone himself is a vegan (Secret #17).
The table of contents tells it all — alphabetically: Blue Zones, brewer’s yeast, calorie reduction, eating dirt, positive attitude, and so forth. The introduction and sidebar articles describe the historical, scientific, and peculiar benefits and side-effects of the various “secrets.” The discriminating reader will be unhappy at the lack of footnotes relating to the “scientific evidence” and reference to “hundreds of studies” which prove a particular point without citing one. If you’re going to rely upon the British medical journal Lancet Oncology to prove a point, Mr. Stone, tell the reader what issue to search. Likewise, a general reference to a University of Nebraska study on chicken soup which appeared in Chest in the year 2000 is not very helpful. You can read about soft drinks still available which were “once marketed as patent medicines,” but without a citation, as well as “Stanley’s Snake Oil” without tripping over a footnote.
“Despite centuries of lifesaving advances in medicine and public health,” Stone notes, “medical professionals still can’t tell us how to stay well. The common cold is just as common as it was eons ago, and sickness itself shows no sign of abating. So why not look for solutions to sickness among those for whom the common cold is uncommon?”
Despite not giving scientists and medical professionals the final word on health, the dust jacket includes endorsements by Andrew Weil, M.D.; Mark Hyman, M.D.; Mark Liponis, M.D.; and Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., M.D. As Dr. Liponis remarked, “I’ve been a doctor for more than two decades and even I learned some new ways to stay well.” Stone does not recommend that we avoid medical professionals altogether — his publisher certainly did not — but neither does he include a chapter on something truly controversial: the effect of prayer on those who are ill. He has taken a step away from medical professionals and scientists as the only authority on how to live a healthy life, but it is not a step in the direction of the paranormal or religious authority. Now that would make for a set of interesting interviews for Stone’s next book.
Robert E. Hamilton, Ph.D. is a consultant to private sector, NGO, and institutional projects in Africa. He has worked as an academic lecturer or outreach director to several universities, a private sector communications and marketing director, a director of a health care NGO, and a stockbroker.
To order The Secrets of People Who Never Get Sick from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support our awards.
The Nightingale of Mosul: A Nurse’s Journey of Service, Struggle, and War
by Susan Luz (Brazil 1972–75) and Marcus Brotherton
Reviewed by Susan O’Neill (Venezuela 1973–74)
I PICKED UP THIS BOOK WITH TREPIDATION. The title seemed grandiose; the legend above it trumpeted: “From the daughter-in-law of George Luz Sr., one of the original Band of Brothers.” The blurbs on the back came from Brothers in that Band, a documentary producer specializing in WWII, and a Brigadier General.
I thought, We’re selling patriotism here.
As a Viet Nam veteran, I’m allergic to patriotism.
So I was prepared to scoff. And when early pages featured faith in God’s will and prayer, my scoff-alert heightened.
As a former Catholic, I’m allergic to Catholicism.
Those disclaimers given, I will say that I was pleasantly surprised. This book, the autobiography of a woman who has lived life double-time in strange and exotic places, proved a compelling read.
Luz was an overweight, intense young world-saver when she joined the Peace Corps while a nursing student at the University of Rhode Island. The Corps was her second choice; she intended to join the Army and go to Viet Nam, but her father, a WWII veteran, flatly rejected the concept.
The Peace Corps assigned her by herself to central Brazil, where she helped set up and run a complex of small medical clinics. It was in her town, in broad daylight, that the unspeakable happened: she was beaten and raped by three men.
That she managed to live through a horrendous attack by men armed with guns and machetes was phenomenal. That, following a period of recuperation, she returned to her town and her mission, walks the line between admirable and crazy.
But it worked for her.
She returned to the US in 1975, earned a Masters in Public Health, left anew for Brazil with Project Hope, came home to hold two simultaneous full-time jobs (as a nurse for the most disreputable high school in Providence, and as head nurse of a psychiatric prison in Cranston), and joined the Army Reserves, which sent her to such disparate corners of the globe as Germany and Bolivia. And oh, yes: in the meantime, she helped support three nephews with cystic fibrosis. And got married.
And went to Iraq as a full-bird colonel, the highest-ranking officer in her reserve hospital unit.
There is a bitter review on the book’s Amazon site that purports to be from someone who served in Luz’s unit in Mosul and Al Asad: “I doubt that she got a drop of blood on her the entire time we were in Iraq. Her two greatest accomplishments were having cookouts and organizing vaccines.”
This, by Luz’s own account, is largely true — and might explain why the pages about her service in Iraq as senior officer in charge of Public Health and morale at her combat hospital seemed, to me at least, to comprise the least interesting section of the book. Luz is not Hamlet; but she makes no more claim on the role than Eliot’s Prufrock, who declared himself “an attendant lord/one that will do/To swell a progress, start a scene or two . . .” and added that he is “Almost, at times, the Fool.” Which, in my experience, is a pretty good job description for a Morale Officer.
Not every combat nurse is up to her elbows in blood, just as not every soldier in a war zone trades fire with the enemy. Contrary to the lore, there are more supporting players in the “theatre of war” than there are starring roles (if direct combatants can be said to be “stars,” which I find debatable). Their stories are absolutely valid, and necessary to an accurate view of the entire production.
Luz’s take on the war is exactly that: her story, told simply, with enthusiasm, heart, and unpretentiousness.
The Nightingale of Mosul (an odd title: the singing to which the book alludes happens in Al Asad) is not a masterpiece of introspection. It isn’t a work of high literary art; it leaves the occasional loose end and employs a few grammar no-nos (”comprised of”— Aaargh!!!). Still, tired old cynic that I am, I enjoyed it. The prose is smooth, and the life of the woman at the heart of it makes it worth the read.
Buy it for your nurse friends. For kids contemplating service in the Peace Corps or the Army Reserves. Buy it for Catholic friends, Country-Western music buffs, and True Believers.
Or maybe just buy it for yourself, because Susan Luz is an intriguing, very human character, charging the stage with enthusiasm, scattering the floorboards with bright petals of bruised good cheer.
Susan O’Neill (Army Nurse Corps Viet Nam, 1969-70; Peace Corps Venezuela, 1973-74) is the author of the newly-re-released story collection Don’t Mean Nothing, a pack of lies loosely based on her experience in Viet Nam. Her website is http://susanoneill.us. She is co-editor of Vestal Review (http://www.vestalreview.net/), the world’s oldest magazine exclusively for Flash Fiction.
To order The Nightingale of Mosul: A Nurse’s Journey of Service, Struggle, and War from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support our awards.
Next month Stan Meisler’s book on the Peace Corps When The World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years will be published by Beacon Press, but you can order it now at www.amazon.com (be the first RPCV on your block to own a copy!)
We will also have a review of the book next month done by Robert Textor who was an early consultant to the Peace Corps, and editor of one of the first studies about the agency, Cultural Frontiers of the Peace Corps, published in 1966 by MIT Press.
Meanwhile….For those who don’t know, Stan Meisler…was a reporter for AP who came late to the Peace Corps. ”I was not there at the madcap, exciting, glorious beginning. I started my work at Peace Corps headquarters just after the election of Lyndon B. Johnson to a full term as president, a year after the assassination of President Kennedy.”
He had misgivings about working for the government, as any reporter might, but the Peace Corps was different. “It was,” Meisler writes, “an oasis of idealism and goodness in the vast Washington bureaucracy. Everyone, even Washington correspondents, loved the Peace Corps.”
In his career at the agency he would make a half dozen lengthy-a month or longer-trips to evaluate Peace Corps programs: twice to Ethiopia, twice to Cameroon, and once each to Tanzania, Senegal, Gambia, Ghana, India, and Iran. After the Peace Corps, and for three decades, he was a foreign and diplomatic correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.
Knowing Stan from his tours to Ethiopia and at Peace Corps Headquarters, I’d say if anyone is capably of writing about the agency, it’s Stanley Meisler.
His history of the first 50 years of the agency follows two paths. One path is the work of PCVs overseas based mostly on his own evaluations and exhaustive research over the last two years; the second path follows the policy and political maneuverings in Washington, D.C. with its various power struggles, political appointments, and wily decision makings. These back room and background stories come from persons with firsthand knowledge of how it all happened.
In his book on the agency, Stan writes, for example, of how Lyndon Johnson became furious when volunteers opposed his invasion of the Dominican Republic; he reveals how Richard Nixon literally tried to destroy the Peace Corps, and he shows how Ronald Reagan endeavored to make it an instrument of foreign policy in Central America. But somehow, Stan writes, the ethos of the Peace Corps endured.
Stan is at his best when discerning what he observed during his evaluation tours and later saw from afar when he was working for three decades as a foreign correspondent in Africa and Latin America. Not much gets by this guy.
I remember running into Stan in 1969 in Kenya. I was traveling through Africa a half dozen years after leaving the Peace Corps, working my way around the continent. Stan was covering Africa for the Los Angeles Times. We ran into each other crossing a park in downtown Nairobi. Neither one of us, of course, was surprised. That’s the way with the Peace Corps: RPCVs turn up anywhere and everyplace.
Stan was on his way to interview a Kenyan marathon runner thanks to a tip from yet another Ethiopian RPCV, Allen Reed (Ethiopia 1965-67), who had been a Volunteer in Gambella on the boarder with the Sudan, and then an ex-pat who had stayed on in Africa to work for aid organizations in Southern Sudan. Meeting Meisler somewhere in the Sudan, Allen talked to him about a tribe of great runners in northern Kenyans. Stan was onto writing a story about these runners when our paths crossed, and this was years before the New York Marathon or any other marathons, where Kenyans, and Ethiopians certainly, would excel.
Like any good reporter, Stan had done his homework, with the help of this Ethiopian RPCV, and found a nugget of information to develop into an interesting story to write about.
His history of the Peace Corps, When The World Calls, is full of such nuggets. As someone who had made a passion, a hobby (some might call it an obsession) out of the agency, I was surprised by what I didn’t know about the Peace Corps, the back stairwell stories, let’s call them, of what really happened at HQ. Meisler has gotten to a lot of folks who are still around to tell tales of the good (and not so good) old days.
Meisler tracks the agency over these five decades, beginning with Shriver. He ends his book with Aaron Williams, the current Director, but Stan focuses his history mostly on themes, flash points, the worth of the PCV overseas, and what RPCVs have accomplished, then and now, in their host country and here at home.
The titles of his chapters show where Meisler is going and what interests him.
- Sarge’s Peace Corps (Chapter 2)
- American Troops Invade the Dominican Republic (Chapter 6)
- The Militant Sam Brown (Chapter 11)
- The Rich Lady in Her First Job for Pay (Chapter 13)
- 200, 000 Stories (Chapter 14)
- The Quiet Bush Years (Chapter 17)
- Does the Peace Corps Do Any Good? (Afterward)
For obvious reasons I zoned in Chapter 14, as the telling of Peace Corps tales has been the focus of my Peace Corps interest for some twenty-five years. With Marian Haley Beil (Ethiopia 1962-64) we have been tracking Peace Corps writers, and promoting these writers as a way of fulfilling the Third Goal of the agency.
Stan is kind enough to recognize our efforts in his book, and singles out three fine memoirs by Mike Tidwell (Zaire 1985-86); Ellen Urbani (Guatemala 1992-94); and Barbara E. Joe Honduras (2000-04) to show the range of experiences, the range of hardships and triumphs, and the range of ages of Volunteers. These memoirs show us all, as well as the rest of the world, where the Peace Corps is today.
These memoirs, he sums up, “reflected a changing Peace Corps. By the 1980s, the Peace Corps had become an elite institution of Americans working in remote sites, often alone, coping with poverty and inertia, doing the best they could to change what little they could….All in all, based on the evidence in these memoirs, the most recent Volunteers struck an old evaluator like myself as a heroic band.”
Thanks, Stan, for telling us how it was and how it is and for bringing our stories back home.
About Peace Corps Writers
All Peace Corps, all the time — book reviews, author interviews, essays, new books, scoops, resources for readers and writers. In other words — just what we’ve been doing with our newsletter RPCV Writers & Readers from 1989 to 1996, and our website Peace Corps Writers from 1997 to 2008! — John Coyne, editor; and Marian Haley Beil, publisher (both Ethiopia 1962–64)
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