where returned Volunteers share their expertise and experiences
Sargent Shriver, shown with the first Peace Corps volunteers, made the CIA promise never to plant spies in the Corps. (Reuters/Jfk Library) By Katharine Whittemore Globe Correspondent / July 10, 2011
A little name-dropping, and then we’ll move on. Two former New England senators were Peace Corps volunteers: Chris Dodd (Dominican Republic) and the late Paul Tsongas (Ethiopia). Other heavy-hitting ex-volunteers include Donna Shalala (Iran), secretary of health and human services under Bill Clinton, and Reed Hastings (Swaziland), founder of Netflix. And journalists have long been core to the Corps: MSNBC’s “Hardball” host Chris Matthews (Swaziland), Vanity Fair’s Maureen Orth (Colombia), and travel writer Paul Theroux (Malawi).
Note: When I say “journalist,” fix on the first two syllables. For as we brook the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary this year, realize there are now 200,000 former volunteers in our midst - and seemingly all of them kept journals. Go to peacecorps worldwide.org and click on Peace Corps Experience Books, and you’ll feel either charmed or besieged. Forgive me, but most are syrupy, mediocre reads. Maybe because “the essence of the experience is as hard to describe as a Beethoven symphony,” as Moritz Thomsen writes in “Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle” (University of Washington, 1969).
Luckily, some writers make fine music. Thomsen’s book is a classic of the genre - Larry McMurtry calls his writing “exhilarating.” A rich man’s son, World War II bombardier, and California farmer, Thomsen writes of hauling bamboo to build chicken houses in Ecuador, and how to burn a field to clear for planting corn and oranges. He gets sick with a lung fungus (almost every Corps memoir boasts at least one dire illness). He makes friends with the more adventurous locals - one names his newborn after him - though most believe he’s yet another gringo come to bilk them.
That’s another trademark of the Peace Corps memoir: combating suspicion. (No wonder founding director Sargent Shriver made the CIA promise to never stock the Corps with spies). Then there’s depression, which strikes most volunteers as they slam up against a frustrating, enigmatic culture. Here’s Thomsen’s confession: “It came as an ego-shriveling shock to discover after the first month that I wasn’t doing much of anything but reacting naively and emotionally to the poverty around me.”
These themes are wonderfully reprised in “The Ponds of Kalambayi: An African Sojourn” by Mike Tidwell (Lyons & Burford, 1990). Thomsen was 48 when he signed on (Miss Lillian Carter’s fame aside, only 7 percent of volunteers are over 50). But Tidwell is the Corps’ typical fresh-meat college grad. He too gets sick, has a child named for him, and falls under suspicion - villagers assume he’s there to make a profit. The Atlanta native’s job is to help malnourished Congolese tribes add protein to their diet and cash to their coffers by starting tilapia farms.
Multiple obstacles surface: roads so bad no bulldozers can be brought in, flooding, predators that almost eat up the stock. Still, the project is a success. But the villagers all expect a cut even if they didn’t do any legwork. This drives Tidwell crazy, until he grasps the nature of the tribal system. “It was a survival strategy,” he writes. “No one would be allowed to fall off the societal boat no matter how low provisions ran on board.” Tidwell’s own societal boat is leaky; when he spurns the village beggar, he is called a “muena tshitua,” literally “someone who doesn’t share,” one of the worst accusations one can make in Kalambayi. He is ashamed; he changes.
There are other fine memoirs: “The Village of Waiting” by George Packer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984); “Monique and the Mango Rains” by Kris Holloway (Waveland, 2007); “Triumph and Hope: Golden Years with the Peace Corps in Honduras” by Barbara E. Joe (Booksurge, 2008). But you’ve got to leaven the personal with the political. Thus “When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years” (Beacon, 2011) by Stanley Meisler, a longtime foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, and a reporter who doesn’t pull punches (God love him, he calls some agency directors “asinine”). We get the early, heady JFK-Shriver years. We get the mudslingers (Eisenhower thought the Corps a “juvenile experiment”; Nixon called it “a haven for draft dodgers” and later got then-speechwriter Pat Buchanan to dig up dirt on the organization).
The downsides get their due: inefficient placements, insulted host countries, volunteers beaten, raped, and murdered. The upsides are trumpeted too: In 2008, 7,750 volunteers had worked with 2.1 million people and helped train 126,000 teachers, health workers, and more. Multiply that over 50 years, and the numbers shine. But, really, you can’t quantify the Peace Corps. It is soul-changing, back-breaking, far-reaching. To see the volunteers at work, as one program evaluator wrote, “is to be struck by the power that can be exerted by a little common decency.” So happy anniversary - and many more.
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine. firstname.lastname@example.org.
What Peace Corps Volunteer (before he was a PCV) met Hemingway in Spain when Ernie was writing The Dangerous Summer, the story of the rivalry of two great bullfighters–Luis-Miguel Dominguin and Antonio Ordonez?
That summer in Spain this young man approached Hemingway at one of the writer’s lengthy luncheon and asked him how to ‘become’ a writer. There is actually a photograph of the encounter, (it appeared, I think, in the old LIFE magazine) taken from a second-story balcony. It is a photo looking down on Hemingway at a long table of friends of the writer, and the young guy who would, in a few years, become a Peace Corps Volunteer. Who is this PCV?
1) He was a PCV in the 1960s;
2) A PCV in Latin America;
3) He later became a magazine writer;
4) He has a brother who was a PCV and CD for the Peace Corps;
5) He wrote a wonderful book about his father.
6) Hemingway wrote about him in an article about that summer.
If you get his name right, I’ll buy you a beer in DC at the 50th Reunion!
[His brother is not allowed to give the name!]
Reading the current issue of The New York Review of Books I spotted a long piece by Meghan O’Rourke on the new collection The New Yorker Stories by Ann Beattie. There was a photo of Ann in front of a shelf of books taken by Dominique Nabokov and it is clearly (by its disorganized self) a home book shelf.
Scanning it closely to see what she might be reading, I spotted Peter Hessler’s (China 1996-98) latest book, Country Driving. It is on a shelf of random books, with only a few title readable, Green Metropolis by David Owen; Hatred of Capitalism by Chris Kraus and Sylvere Lotringer; and Michael Lewis’ The Big Short.
There might have been other RPCV writers on Ann’s shelf, but lookikng closely, I couldn’t find any of my books. Oh, well!
Marty Ganzglass’s (Somalia 1966-68) first novel, The Orange Tree, is the fifth book published by our imprint, Peace Corps Writers. It is a story of the unlikely friendship between an elderly Jewish lady and a young Somali nurse who cares for her.
Recently Marty and I exchanged questions and answers about his writing and his long association with Somalia.
Marty, where did you serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer?
I went to Somalia, along with my wife Evelyn, from 1966 to 1968. I was a lawyer and worked as legal advisor to the Somali National Police Force, replacing a Ford Foundation lawyer, who coincidentally, went on to become Police Commissioner of New York City (Robert J. McGuire). My assignment was quite unusual for a PCV.
You have been connected with Somali for years, in what role?
My post Peace Corps service connections with Somalia run deep. When we moved to Washington, D.C. in 1972, I became legal counsel to the Somali Embassy and later worked with the Ministry of Mineral and Water Resources, negotiating oil concession agreements on behalf of the Government with major petroleum companies. I also did some contract negotiations for Somali Airlines. I went back to Somalia a few times in the 1980s on legal matters. Those are the official ties.
From 1979 until around 1986, the son of a very good Somali friend of ours (a Police Officer imprisoned by Siad Barre and held without charges or trial for more than seven years) lived with us, as did the eldest daughter of another friend, also a Police Officer.
In 1993, I was sent to Somalia by the Department of State, during Operation Restore Hope, to advise U.S. Ambassador Robert Gosende and Admiral Howe, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative to Somalia, on ways to restore the Somali judiciary and National Police. I have submitted affidavits on behalf of many Somalis seeking political asylum in the U.S., was an expert witness for the Somali plaintiffs in the United States, suing former Vice President, Minister of Defense and General of the Army, Mohamed Ali Samantar for ordering extra-judicial killings, imprisonment and torture of civilians in what is now Somaliland and am currently a Board Member of the Somali American Community Association.
Evelyn and I helped our closest Somali friends to escape the chaos and wanton slaughter in 1991 and come to the U.S. They now live in Seattle and we visit frequently and consider each other part of one family.
Why this novel?
Why this novel? The idea for this novel came to me about 20 years ago, when one of our elderly relatives was in a nursing home. When we had to place my own aunt in a nursing home, I started writing, but quickly discovered I could not practice law and write in a concise legal style during the day, and convert to fiction at night. More power to John Grisham and others. The idea lay dormant, although I presciently kept notes of dialogue and events at nursing homes over the years as another relative became a resident. After I retired at the end of December 2008, I began writing and completed The Orange Tree in eleven months. Much of the plot development and dialogue occurred to me while I was walking our one-year-old golden retriever, B J. I credit him as my co-author.
What Peace Corps writers have you read?
I confess the only Peace Corps writers I have read are the authors of the essays in Going Up Country. However, I have also read a book by Patrick T. Murphy, a Peace Corps Volunteer who also served in Somalia as a lawyer when I was there, and who went on to become Cook County Public Guardian. His non-fiction book is entitled Our Kindly Parent . . . The State: The Juvenile Justice System and How It Works.
Do you know the collection of creative non-fiction stories about the Peace Corps in Somalia, The Last Camel: True Stories about Somalia by Jeanne Martha D’Haem (Somalia 1968–70) published in 1997 or Horses Like the Wind and Other Stories of Africa by Baker H. Morrow (Somalia 1968–69)?
I have read The Last Camel. I am unaware of Baker Morrow’s book.
Where else have you published — fiction or non-fiction?
I have written and published: The Penal Code of the Somali Democratic Republic: Cases, Commentary and Examples, Rutgers University Press, 1971; Constitutions of the World-Somalia, Blaustein & Flanz, Editors, Oceana Publications, 1971, 1979, 1981; Learning From Somalia: The Lessons of Armed Humanitarian Intervention: The Restoration of the Somali Justice System, Clarke & Herbst, Editors, Westview Press, 1997. In addition, I have written two articles on the Samantar case for the Journal of the Anglo-Somali Society.
The Peace Corps at 50: The 48 Hour Rule is to be published in 2011 as part of the 50th Anniversary celebration.
And your plans for future writing?
Currently, I am working on short stories about Somalia, tentatively entitled Seven Somali Shorts.
In addition I have completed a first draft of an historical novel, set in the first year of the American Revolutionary War, entitled Cannons for the Cause. It is built around the “noble train of artillery” brought down from Fort Ticonderoga, through the Berkshires and on to Cambridge by Colonel Henry Knox in the brutal winter of 1775–1776.
Since my protagonist in Cannons for the Cause is 16 years old at the end of the novel, and has enlisted in Knox’s artillery regiment, there will be several more historical novels in the series. I have begun work on the next one about the Battle for New York and the retreat through the Jerseys. B J continues to give me valuable counsel in plot and character development.
Knowing Somalia as well as you do, what is the future of the nation?
Somalia will not rebuild as a nation until the Somalis in the different regions themselves decide what kind of national government they want. In the meantime, the U.S. should, without recognizing the governments of Somaliland and Puntland, provide economic assistance on a regional and local tribal basis, as we are currently doing in Afghanistan and have previously done in Iraq, to improve infrastructure in health, education and transportation and assist Somalis in enhancing their own security.
In the mail, I received a message that began:
As the minutes passed, the recycled air in the fuselage became like old breath. The planeload of Americans shot nervous looks at each other. Pinpricks of sweat forming on skin, cool but quickly warming. Charlotte joked that they had been abandoned, left to suffocate on the tarmac as a message to all foreigners.
They crowded around the windows to look at their new home. The skyline was made of Soviet-built apartment compounds, sooty smokestacks. They saw a man from the ground crew idling on the tarmac. The man looked up, saw their faces pressed against the portholes. They slapped the glass and called to him. He smiled, revealing rotten teeth, but made no move to assist.
The temperature soared.
So begins National Magazine Award finalist Christopher Howard’s second novel, Tea of Ulaanbaatar: the story of disaffected Peace Corps Volunteer Warren, who flees life in late-capitalist America to find himself stationed in the post-Soviet industrial hell of urban Mongolia. As the American presence crumbles, Warren seeks escape in tsus, the mysterious “blood tea” that may be the final revenge of the defeated Khans — or that may be only a powerful hallucinogen operating on an uneasy mind — as a phantasmagoria of violence slowly envelops him.
With prose that combines Benjamin Kunkel’s satiric bite, William Burroughs’s dark historical reimagining, and a lush literary beauty all his own, Christopher Howard in Tea of Ulaanbaatar unfolds a story of expatriate angst, the dark side of globalization, and middle-class nightmares — and announces himself as one of the most inventive and ambitious of the new generation of American novelists.
This is all from the promotional material sent out by the publisher, Seven Stories Press, a small but important house here in New York. Next I read a glowing review published in the Boston Globe and decided to track down Chris Howard, and with the help of his publisher, I did. Here is some of the back-and-forth from our emails.
Chris, what’s your background?
I’m from Illinois. I hold bachelor’s degrees in English and philosophy from the University of Missouri/Columbia, and a master’s in English from Illinois State University. I’ve been a reporter, and have taught English, and many things, all to facilitate the writing addiction.
Where were you a PCV?
How would you sum up your tour?
I left early, just a few months into the trip. I was there in 1997. When looking back now, what I remember is the Mongolian people — some good, some bad, proud, laboring under adverse conditions, administrated by a government that has not always had the peoples’ best interests in mind, remnants of a vast empire. It’s striking how their fate parallels our own, in America.
How did this novel come about? What drove you to write it?
Part of it was I wondered why human history has been this neverending series of wars. You can’t even write it off as the biproduct of more primitive times, because we still engage in war at a whim — Vietnam, Iraq, etc. We fabricate reasons to go to war. We have bankrupted our nation, in part, to fight these arbitrary wars. Why must it be like this? Nowadays, part of it must be that the people who declare war get to talk tough but have no real stake in it. But this alone didn’t resolve the question for me, so I thought: Why not some artifact throughout the ages that prompts men to war? And so tsus was invented, the hallucinogenic, blood-red Mongolian tea of the novel. Everyone who drinks the tsus ends up having these same visions of a warlike apocalypse, but they’re hooked.
Why did you join the Peace Corps in the first place?
At that time — wrapping up my bachelor’s degrees — I was a true believer in the Peace Corps: go overseas and teach the developing world to read. I mean, what better job could there possibly be?
Why did you leave so quickly?
Giardia. I assume from the water. Quite a sporty parasite, in my experience.
You also were in the army?
I was in the 20th Infantry out of Fort Lewis, Washington. We tested the Stryker armored infantry carrier vehicles, and deployed only stateside for the duration of my contract. It’s true what they say, you make some of the best friends of your life in the Army. I respect the men of my company so much. Also some of the people I’ve met through the Veterans Administration since.
You weren’t drafted, right? Why did you join the army?
I was at an Army recruiter 72 hours after 9/11.
Have you read any Peace Corps books? Novels? Memoirs?
I read a lot and have an extensive library, but no, I’m embarrassed to say.
What writers do you connect with?
For living writers, I think the best are Joan Didion for White Album, Michael Herr for Dispatches, and Jedi Master Cormac McCarthy for everything. Right now I’m reading The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, by Ron Hansen, and it’s easily among the best books I’ve ever read. It’s so beautiful, it’s a little hard for me to finish. Maybe that will only make sense to some people. For dead writers, Hemingway, Orwell, and Turgenev.
There has been a lot of talk lately about the value of the Peace Corps. You having been in the army and the Peace Corps, which one should we support?
The infantry was a better fit for me, but I strongly support the ideal of both organizations.
What are you writing? Anything soon to be published?
I’ve been very lucky to get the same fantastic editor at Seven Stories, Jeanne Thornton, for the next book, Prince of the World. It is a continuation of a short story published in McSweeney’s years ago. The story takes place in 1818, where Labelle, a mute, possibly brain-damaged, possibly psychotic, half-black, half-Native American wanders up the Mississippi River after his mother dies. Writing Labelle has been one of the greatest joys of my life, and challenging too, because he is mute, and never speaks a word of dialogue throughout the text, depending on how you read it. He encounters river pirates, dragoons, and eventually ends up at the Illini massacre at Starved Rock, Illinois. The writing for this one was particularly slow-going because I am striving for 99% historical accuracy and there was a LOT of research. But I think the end result, the world of the Mississippi River and Starved Rock in the early 19th Century, with this melancholy wash infusing everything, has been worth the effort.
You Never Try, You Never Know: Six Year in Liberia
by Ruth Jacobson (Liberia 1971-77)
Court Street Press
$18.95, paperback; $6.95 e-book
Reviewed by Geraldine Kennedy (Liberia 1962–64)
RUTH JACOBSON AND HER HUSBAND HAROLD were in their 50s when they joined the Peace Corps in 1971. By then they were well experienced in their professions — she a nurse, he a mechanic. Their two daughters were grown. They were just the kind of people both the Peace Corps and host countries needed and valued. Well, it seems one of them was more valued than the other — we’ll get to that.
You Never Try, You Never Know is a collection of letters Ruth wrote to family members, primarily to her mother, about the Jacobson’s six years in Liberia. It is a one-way correspondence to people she loved about a life she embraced.
During their orientation and training period in Liberia the Jacobsons discover that Harold will receive an assignment, based on a request for his skills, to a demonstration rice project in the settlement of Gbedin, far up country between Ganta and Sanniquellie. Ruth will be on her own to invent a job. Undaunted, she does so with vigor. Most of Nimba County, including the iron mining camp at LAMCO becomes her territory.
Seeing the evident need for medical services, Ruth establishes a belly clinic, a baby clinic, midwife and nursing training classes, organizes teams for mobile clinics to deliver inoculations to remote villages and sees a constant stream of patients who drop into their home with fever, wounds or worms. She reports having inoculated 1,000 patients a day during the mobile clinics.
Nursing is an inherently intimate act. Ruth’s openness and hands-on care-giving bring her into the claustrophobic birthing hut and beside too frequent deathbeds. She develops a strong fondness for the tribal women. But illiteracy is the norm among them. They are wary of kwi (white people’s) medicine and susceptible to the mystical influence of the zo (native medicine man). Even though she sees the direct relationship between disease and the death of babies, Ruth is remarkably sensitive to not offending the zo when having to contradict his explanations for a child’s illness. Ruth knows the baby is sick from polluted water, not from a curse. But often as not, the mother will act on the zo’s interpretation and accepting that her baby is meant to die, will flee the clinic before Ruth can act.
Ruth and Harold are open to new ways. They learn Liberian English. They will eat just about anything. They don’t complain. Best of all, they know how to fix things. And in Liberia, there are a lot of things that need fixing. They are always busy — with their jobs, feeding visitors, tending their garden, raising chickens, understanding Liberian ways.
At holidays, they miss their children and the traditions they had taken for granted. But Ruth does not wallow in nostalgia or longing. She gets to work substituting scrawny chickens for turkey and cooking potato greens and rice in palm butter for her first Liberian Thanksgiving shared with their new friends, including the Chinese men who work with Harold on the rice project.
The elderly are revered in Liberia and with their white hair the Jacobsons are readily honored as “Ma” and “Pa.” They keep their door open, literally. They host out of town dignitaries, successive sets of new Peace Corps Volunteers on orientation tours, local girls stopping by for a sewing lesson, and little kids who just come in, watch the white people for a while and then get up saying, “I go now.” (Ruth’s spot on the rendering of Liberian English reached deep into my memory of my years there.)
THEIR ELDER DAUGHTER, JUDITH, edited the letters and included a brief history and map of Liberia and photographs throughout the text. This presentation of original materials without comment is both the strength and weakness of the book. Additional editorial notes and an index would have been helpful. Some threads of events or characters are begun or hinted at and then vanish. A good bit of information is repeated to several, or even the same, recipients.
But these shortcomings are outweighed by the growing insight we absorb from Ruth’s carefully detailed observations. In the immediacy of the moment, none of us knows what will become important and what is fleeting. Ruth gives us her day as the fragment it is and only over time do she and we build the whole. When she slips in a Liberian expression we can feel her smiling at how at home she has become.
As it is, we all understand the self-editing that goes with writing to our mothers. In Ruth’s case, it seemed to require a determined and unwavering cheerfulness. At first, I found this irritating. But I soon calmed down as I recalled my own behavior. A decade earlier, I was a young Peace Corps teacher in Liberia, inexperienced and at sea in a culture I struggled to understand. But even then, I’m sure my letters to my mother were full of unwavering cheerfulness and innocuous details, carefully filtered so as to not alarm her.
The Jacobson’s casual comments about the difficulties and frustrations they face belie the depth of challenges trying to make something work in a society predisposed to nothing working. Fifty percent of their Peace Corps group terminates early. Where other Volunteers cannot function without support in jobs that were not what they expected in a culture to which they cannot adjust, the Jacobsons make lives and solve problems with what they find at hand each day. No angst, no navel gazing; just sunny, resourceful respect.
Eventually the repeated failure of the Liberian government to honor its promises to support the agricultural and health projects begins to have a cumulative impact on these good people.
At the end of each contract period, the Jacobsons eagerly prepare to go home only to surprise Ruth’s correspondents and us with their decision to extend their time in Liberia. When they complete their Peace Corps service and take positions with the Lutheran Mission in Phoebe, we don’t learn until years later that only Harold’s work is compensated. Ruth continues all of her nursing and medical education projects as an unpaid volunteer, but with the same sustained and cheerful devotion as when they first arrived.
Without a laboratory or diagnostic equipment, Ruth diagnoses, prescribes, and administers treatment — functions she admits her education would not allow her the professional or legal authority to do in the States. Harold keeps machinery running by vigilant maintenance and at critical junctures, handcrafting replacement parts. Knowing they will eventually leave Liberia, they both try to train Liberians to take over their jobs. But the discipline and order needed to keep bodies healthy and machinery running are not part of the DNA of Liberian culture.
You Never Try, You Never Know is an intelligent record of the Jacobsons’ time in Liberia. While it never directly asks, their six-year saga of clinics, menus, caring friendships, washed out roads, bush school, joyful work, devil dancers, secret societies, white chickens, and dying babies doesn’t let us escape the deeper questions of the relationship between the first and third worlds and especially what that means for the Peace Corps. I recommend this book to anyone struggling with that issue.
Geraldine Kennedy is the author of the Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award-winning Harmattan: A Journey Across the Sahara; editor of the best-seller, From the Center of the Earth; Stories out of the Peace Corps; and a publisher (Clover Park Press).
Reviewed by Ken Hill (Turkey 1965-67)
A VOTER’S HANDBOOK poses solutions for a myriad of public policy issues based on the assertion that government is the central problem which can be fixed by reducing government’s span and resources. Shrink government; grow entrepreneurship; expand “choice” and go back to “American Fundamentals,” says Mr. Gray. In the process, thankfully, he poses some practical approaches to a few of today’s most vexing issues; illegal immigration, for example, and treating the mentally ill who are not institutionalized.
A lawyer and judge, Mr. Gray has spent his life in the law, wandering occasionally into politics. A Republican candidate for Congress in 1998, he later ran as a Libertarian candidate in the 2004 California Senatorial race. In 2009, Mr. Gray retired after 25 years as a sitting judge before which he pursued the law both in private practice and as a public attorney in the military and civilian service. From 1966 to 1968 he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Costa Rica.
The central problem, in Mr. Gray’s view, is too much government getting in the way: “Government is the reason for our healthcare collapse.” He courageously attacks various complex problems using admittedly simple solutions, beginning with a change in attitude and expectations. At the outset of A Voter’s Guide, he uses a variety of simplistic anecdotes about the evils of government intrusion and engagement to the detriment of our society, some dating from the old Soviet Union. A much stronger case is required.
Mr. Gray wanders through the criminal justice system, public education, healthcare, immigration, tax policy, nuclear energy, pervasive government, etc., and suggests the way to achieve his solutions. Occasionally, he escapes the doctrinaire. It is a bit ironic, for example, for a “libertarian” to suggest that school uniforms be encouraged in all our schools. His approach to illegal immigration avoids the Maginot Line approach of the current right wing and suggests a practicable policy of control. Unfortunately, it stops short of a solution for the 12 million or more illegals currently in the United States which is the current “sticking point” on most policy options.
A Voter’s Guide is a discussion of critical public policy issues from a rather personal perspective. That Mr. Gray occasionally escapes the predictable and doctrinaire to offer some unexpectedly intriguing ideas makes it a more interesting read. Thankfully, it is a short book and one saving grace is a Bob Dylan quote. Can’t be all bad!
“I had just finished my MFA,” Christina wrote me recently. “I didn’t have a job. I was twenty-six years old, between boyfriends, and had no burning ideas for a novel. I was too old to live in my parents’ house, or so it seemed to me at the time. When I flash back, I realize I was quite conflicted about being a writer, despite what my heart had always told me. Perhaps because I was born in the JFK era, joining the Peace Corps seemed a perfect opportunity suddenly, no longer just a pipe dream. Just in making the decision to join, I felt a sense of urgency that was new to me.”
Christina would go to Eastern Europe as a PCV, to Szeged, Hungary, a city close to the Romaian border. She writes that her experience over two years and subsequent years working in the region was an amazing education. It was the end of the Iron Curtain and she was there, watching it happen. She wrote me also, “I couldn’t have written this novel if it weren’t for my Peace Corps experience and I am always grateful.”
The novel is entitled, Smuggled. It is, as the press release states, a novel that “spans four decades in a woman’s quest to regain her identity from the conflicts that defined her youth.”
The first ideas for this novel, explains Christina, was born “of my love of heroes. I met so many unsung heroes in Romania and Hungary, and I wanted to give voice to just one. The holocaust, communism, Ceausescu’s oppression and, at last, the historic change that could set my character free.”
The novel opens in the final winter of the Second World War, five-year-old Eva Farkas is hidden by her mother in a flour sack and smuggled across the Hungarian border to Romania. Her aunt and uncle rename her Anca and forbid her to speak Hungarian ever again. “Eva is dead,” she is told.
As years pass, an unquenchable spirit emerges, full of passion and imagination even as a uniquely twisted brand of Communist oppression threatens to derail Anca at ever turn. Though pushed to the breaking point, when the pillars of a Communism finally crumble, a grown-up Anca returns to Hungary, a country changing as fast as the price of bread, to find a home and reclaim the name her mother gave her.
This second novel of Christina Shea will be published this July as a trade paperback by Black Cat. Her first novel, Moira’s Crossing, was a Barnes & Noble Discover selection.
Christina lives in Boston and she will be reading at Lesley University in Cambridge on Monday, June 27, at 6:45. She will be at the McKenna Students Center, Marran Theater. Go and say hello, tell her you were a PCV, and buy her book. Christina is a RPCV writer. The woman can write and we are lucky to have her as one of our own.
by Kevin Bubriski (Nepal 1975–79)
The Orange Tree
by Martin R. Ganzglass (Somalia 1966–68)
Peace Corps Writers
(Peace Corps novel)
by Dan Grossman (Niger 1992–94)
(Peace Corps poems)
by Dan Grossman (Niger 1992–94)
Feather: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle
by Thor Hanson (Uganda 1993–95)
Years On: And Other Travel Essays
by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 1975–77)
Soda Springs: Love, Sex and Civil Rights
by Terry Marshall (Philippines 1965-68)
Hardback $28.99; Paper $19.13; Kindle, $7.79
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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)