Nine out of ten “Peace Corps Books” are self-published. The reason — while the Peace Corps experience is life-changing and many RPCVs want everyone to know about their service, in most cases no commercial, small or academic presses are interested in publishing their stories. The good news is that because of self-publishing RPCVs can take matters into their own hands. Here’s one woman’s story of being a PCV in South Africa.
Reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras, 1975–77)
Lasso the World is a clearly written series of time resilient vignettes covering four of the seven continents. Written over a quarter century as newspaper and magazine articles, the compilation reads fresh like the desert in bloom. Starley (Anderson) Talbott, self-taught journalist, has stitched together a beautiful comforter for those whose blood is charged with tumbleweed.
Talbott joined the Peace Corps in 2001 at the age of sixty. This book, published one year after her return from a northwestern province in South Africa, includes a piece about her experience and another about a return wedding trip. Nicknamed Ausi Naledi (sister star) by her younger South African host Stella, Talbott served as an AIDS educator in a portion of the country unaccustomed to foreigners as peers.
“Don’t be afraid,” said one young man as he stared. “I just want to look at you.”
Even her host was surprised. “We didn’t think you would really live with us.”
She stayed and then returned for a wedding described in a separate piece. The entire village seemed to be recruited to build, cook, and participate in tradition. An ox was slaughtered and a bowl of its blood buried to advise the ancestors. With her two year residency, Talbott earned the villager’s trust. When an uncle of the bride ran out of film, he asked Talbott to loan him a roll.
“My camera is digital.”
“Well,” he responded, “I am out of film, so you are the official wedding photographer.”
Since Talbott had been a practicing journalist long before she was a Peace Corps volunteer, we are treated to unusual places and people whose stories are related in honest, unadorned form. There are no fancy metaphors or needless similes like bawdy jewelry to compete with the natural beauty of her prose. This is true of pieces about South Africa, Mexico, Peru, Australia, and obscure places in the American west. Some travel writers describe to hide their own timidity. Talbott has no such problem. She talked to folks and mixed description with local commentary. There are some unexpected results like the encounter with the Wyoming rancher who also scuba dives.
“The water in Lake Fremont is clear,” he explained.
Another unexpected result involves the 1878 Henry Draper Expedition to study a total eclipse of the sun. The original party included world renowned scientists who traveled to Wyoming since it was reported to be the best place in North America to study the eclipse. Talbott visited the site one hundred years later and interviewed the descendants of locals who led the distinguished group including Thomas Edison. Harold Willford, grandson of one of Edison’s guides, recounted how his grandfather led America’s premier inventor on an elk hunting jaunt. Once Edison was confronted by big game, “he dropped the butt (of his rifle) upon the ground saying, ‘I cannot shoot so noble an animal.'”
Talbott’s journalistic inquisitiveness guides us to the mysterious in our own backyard. She met the first man to photograph Apache Mountain Spirit Dancers since 1907. His prints and his unobtrusive nature convinced the tribe to grant him official permission to photograph on the New Mexico Mescalero Reservation.
“If you can do this type of photography without disturbing our ceremony,” explained the reservation president, “then you are the person to do the job.”
In a world of instant communication and increasingly fast transportation, Talbott’s work is a good reminder that the sacred is all around us if we have the strength to knock aside the blinders and spit out the bit of false expectations. For a younger generation accustomed to material wealth and comfort, Talbott bequeaths a special legacy, for the working class author never whines about unrealized potential but sings of the possible.
Lawrence F. Lihosit works as an urban planner. Several of his books and pamphlets are available on-line at www.abookcompany.net.