The Peace Corps Volunteer As A Fictional Character
From the first days of the agency, Peace Corps Volunteers have been rich characters for novels not written by PCVs. The first books about the Peace Corps were young adult novels. In 1963, Breaking the Bonds: A Novel about the Peace Corps, written by Sharen Spence, had a short introduction by Sargent Shriver and was dedicated to “All Peace Corps Volunteers serving the world with discipline, determination, endurance, and a rare idealism.” This novel is set in Nigeria.
Then in 1965 came a series of young adult novels entitled Kathy Martin: Peace Corps Nurse, about a Volunteer in Africa. Another “nursing novel” for a YA audience was written by Rachel G. Payes and published by Avalon Books in 1967.
In 1968 came the most well known of all “Peace Corps novels,” The Zinzin Road, by the very successful commercial novelist and political writer, Fletcher Knebel, who worked briefly as a Peace Corps evaluator. He set his novel in Liberia, which he had visited in 1963. Several “real” Volunteers appear as characters.
In 1975 the very funny novel, Native Intelligence, written by Raymond Sokolov, was published. Sokolov told me he based his novel on stories told to him by his sister and brother-in-law, two PCVs who had served in Chad.
A steady stream of novels has followed. The most important of them, in terms of focusing on Volunteers as characters, are: Tama Janowitz’s A Cannibal in Manhattan (1987) about a Volunteer who brings a cannibal home to New York as her husband; Richard Dooling’s White Man’s Grave (1994), another black comedy that involves a missing Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa.
A small footnote on Dooling’s book. He had gone to West Africa to visit his college roommate Michael O’Neill (Sierra Leone 1978-82) and leaving Mike in Africa, Dooling came up with the idea of writing about rebels capturing a PCV. After he had written the book, his college roommate, Michael O’Neill, was captured by Sierra Leone rebels but managed later to escape. Michael says that the rebels just got tired of feeding him and let him walk away.
To a much smaller degree, there is the novel [and film] The Horse Whisperer (1995) by first-time author Nicholas Evans, who had the husband of the main character, Annie Graves, cast as an RPCV. The husband doesn’t appear in the book or film, giving Robert Redford, playing another character in the movie, lots of space in which to makes his moves on Annie Graves.
Carter Coleman’s The Volunteer (1998) focuses on a Volunteer building fish ponds in Tanzania who becomes involved with a beautiful, young school girl. Most recently (2001), Anita Shreve’s The Last Time They Met is partially set in Kenya and has as a character a young married woman Volunteer having an affair with her high school boyfriend. Also in 2001 was the first novel by noted Malaysian poet, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, entitled Joss & Gold that has a Peace Corps Volunteer abandoning a married university professor in Malaysia. She loses her husband, has the PCV’s child, and later her daughter searches for her true identity.
Sounds like a Peace Corps novel to me.
F. Scott Fitzgerald years ago said that if you being with a real character in a novel, you will create a type. That certainly has happened with Peace Corps Volunteers. We have moved from characters to type to be found in many books and films. Of course, I realize, there are many of you already thinking, hey, we have enough characters in the Peace Corps! You should have seen this guy that served with me!
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Thanks for the note on White Man’s Grave. Still my favorite novel (even though we novelists aren’t supposed to have favorites).
PCVs and ex-PCVs may also enjoy a story of mine from The New Yorker called BUSH PIGS. Free for the downloading at:
Also available via Selected Shorts from Symphony Space:
I’d make this free, too, but I don’t own the audio rights.