Having Failed To Interest Anyone With My Last Quiz, Let Me Try Again!

Okay, here are first lines from 10 Memoirs by RPCVs. I’ll make it easier and give you the names of the authors. You need only match the prose with the person.

1. The nicest thing anyone ever said to me came cloaked in an insult which, while essentially inaccurate, proved astute in its initial perceptiveness: “We all thought you’d fail.”

2. They took us in the Land Rover, Mike and me, with Kim Buck driving. We had planned to leave that morning, as it was a good four hours’ drive, although it was only about sixty miles from Mbeya.

3. A single lantern filled the room with flickering light, throwing Fanta’s shadow toward the door. The glow bronzed her tight cheekbone, her deflated breast, her moving stomach.

4. These were momentous times. Pope John died and the only clergyman with the guts to stare a television camera in the face was the old croaker himself, Cardinal Cushing, who eulogized from the heart.

5. Two days after I arrived in Ghana to join the first group of Peace Corps volunteers ever to go anywhere, I stood before my first class an libbing a discussion of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (Is Shylock good or bad?” Already I was making Zionist propaganda).

6. How do you pack for a two-year trip to Africa? I knew what I needed to take but not how to carry it all.

7. The Doue, a tributary of the Senegal River, flows inside its red-tan banks past a small village of clay houses with thatched roofs.

8.We were sitting in Jere living room floor in the dark, clutching our handmade weapons–two-by-fours with five-inch nails driven all the way through them, so that the business end of the nails emerged like fangs from the mouth of a poisonous snake.

9. I came to Fuling on the slow boat downstream from Chongqing. It was a warm, clear night at the end of August in 1996–stars flickering about the Yangtze River, their light too faint to reflect off the black water.

10. I got my Peace Corps application at the post office in Red Bluff, California, put it on the table in the kitchen, and walked around it for ten days without touching it, as though it were primed to detonate–as indeed it was–trying to convince myself that for a forty-eight-old farmer the idea of Peace Corps service was impractical and foolhardy.

Under the Neem Treeby Susan Lowerre (University of Washington Press, 1991)

High Risk/High Gain A Freewheeling account of Peace Corps training by Alan Weiss (St. Martin’s Press, 1968)

To the Peace Corps with Love by Arnold Zeitlin (Doubleday & Company, 1965)

The Ponds of Kalambayi: An African Sojourn by Mike Tidwell (Lyons & Burford, Publishers, 1990)

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins Publisher, 2001)

Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village by Sarah Erdman (Henry Holt and Company, 2003)

Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle by Moritz Thomsen  (University of Washington Press, 1969)

When I Was Elana: A memoir by Ellen Urbani Hilterbrand (Permanent Press, 2006)

The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa by Josh Swiller (Henry Holt and Company, 2007)

An African Season by Leonard Levitt (Simon and Schuster, 1966)

One last comment. What is particularly interesting to me is the variety of ‘openings’ to Peace Corps memoirs that you see in these ten books, and  published in ten different  years. No two are alike (and not one begins with the weather! Thank you Mary-Ann for that reminder.) Starting with the first sentence you have (as the reader) no idea where you are going in the book. Not bad for ten first-time writers all writing about the same topic: the Peace Corps.


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  • Okay, I’ll give this a crack — because when you start the list off with my own book, John, you deserve a response! These are my best guesses; having not read most of these books, I based my choices on some knowledge of countries served, pub dates, and an effort to match voice to title:

    1: “The nicest thing anyone ever said…” When I Was Elena, Ellen Urbani
    2: “They took us in the Land Rover…” An African Season, Leonard Levitt
    3. “A single lantern filled the room…” The Ponds of Kalambayi, Mike Tidwell (This was the first PC book I read when I landed in Guatemala in ’91. Thanks, Mike, if you’re reading, for being such a good companion!)
    4. “These were momentous times.” High Risk/High Gain, Alan Weiss
    5. “Two days after I arrived in Ghanaa…” To the Peace Corps with Love, Arnold Zeitlin
    6. “How do you pack for a two-year trip…” Nine Hills to Nambonkaha, Sarah Erdman
    7. “The Doue, a tributary of the Senegal…” Under the Neem Tree, Susan Lowerre
    8. “We were sitting on Jere’s living room…” The Unheard, Josh Swiller
    9. “I came to Fuling on the slow boat…” RIver Town, Peter Hessler
    10. I got my Peace Corps application…” Living Poor, Moritz Thomsen

  • Oh, Ellen, good try, but you MISSED the one book you should never have missed. But you have your book right!

  • I’ve read 6 of the 10 – partly thanks to John’s recommendations – and some are among my all-time favorite books. I recommend all of Thomsen and Hessler’s books. Thanks to Ellen’s response I now know the author of #1 – and will have to check it out. I won’t guess on the ones I haven’t read – it would just be dumb luck if I got any of them right.
    3. Sarah Erdman
    6. Mike Tidwell
    7. Susan Lowerre
    8. Josh Swiller
    9. Peter Hessler
    10. Moritz Thomsen

  • Gotta assume I missed connecting Tidwell with his opening line…..and that was one of the only one’s I’d read!!!…..but I read it nearly 20 years ago, at the very moment I landed in PC training in Guatemala (and, frankly, I could hardly remember my own name at that moment in time!), so I hope you’re in a forgiving mood!

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