Reviewed by Dennis Harrison-Noonan (Costa Rica 1978-80)
In her first published work of fiction, Caminata, A Journey Lori DiPrete Brown tells the story Beth Pellegrino and her first year after college living and working with Mother Maria and the Sister of the Living Cross in an orphanage in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
Her story begins on the day she arrives in Honduras. We meet the girls of the house where she will serve as their encargada. We are introduced to Luz, Felicia, Rosa and Vera, 4 teenage girls whose journey to find their roots will engage Beth in her own pilgrimage of faith and personal discovery.
The author is thorough in offering answers to questions that we as curious readers have concerning Beth’s decision to leave her college love, Jake, her comfortable lifestyle and her future plans to follow a passion that had been fostered by her Spanish teachers at the Catholic high school she attended. We hear how Beth reacts to her new language, her new surroundings and most of all, her new charges, the unforgettable teenage girls who live in the house where she as been assigned.
Beth is surprised to find that she is working not with small orphan children, but with young women who are nearing the time when they must make their way into the world. To this end, Beth volunteers to accompany the young women as they travel back to their place of birth in hopes of securing valuable and necessary information that will both aid them and ground them as they leave the protective bubble of the orphanage.
She first accompanies Felicia to the town of her birth to locate her birth papers that are needed to attend a school in Tegucigalpa. The long, hot bus ride is filled with the typical sights, sounds and challenges a gringa might encounter while traveling through this poor Central America country. After a long day of travel, tired and vulnerable, they arrive at the town. There we meet the townsfolk and witness the women’s attempt to secure the needed documents.
Next Beth travels with Rosa on a “very different trip” to Rosa’s home town to bring back proof of her baptism that would allow her to be married to Alberto in the Catholic Church. Rosa’s family are basket weavers, and Beth is treated to a lesson in Honduran artisan-ship and hospitality. Of course, in all these trips, the journey undertaken takes on many layers of significance for both women. Rosa has many questions about her family and particularly about her mother. She wants to know why her mother chose to give her up. The answers she encounters bring both sadness and healing.
On her third trip, Beth travels with Luz, a depressed young woman of indigenous heritage whom Beth feels might be healed if she can help her reconnect to her ancestral land. Along the way, they travel through the ancient ruins of Copan where Beth convinces Luz to spend some time touring the sites. What they find there tests the mettle of both women as they are led down into a dark underground cavern by a fast- talking guide. After surviving this ordeal, they continue on their way in search of the family farm that Luz remembers as a young girl. Low on water and patience, Beth comes to a few insights as she begins to see the world through Luz’s eyes.
With her year of service now complete, Beth prepares to return to the life she had put on hold. However, with airline ticket in hand and her faithful Jake waiting for her, Beth decides to grant one more girl’s wish. Vera has asked Beth to make yet another journey to help her “make her peace with the past”.
After these four fascinating walks, the author concludes her book with a final and much unexpected caminata, or walk. It seems that in this final journey the author draws together the learning’s of the previous year and comes to a deeper awareness of what this odyssey has meant to her. I’ll say no more about the ending, not wanting to give away this most touching and heartwarming conclusion to a wonderful book.
I appreciated the author’s use of Spanish to convey a sense of being there to the reader. Those familiar with Central American Spanish will find that her many words and phrases add color and richness, and serve to further embellish her deft storytelling. Beginning with the title of the book, she offers words and phrases that help us to hear, see, smell and almost taste the scene. My favorite, and the one that brought back a most vivid memory was the sound “ch ch” that the woman makes to shoe a chicken out of her kitchen. I’ll have to check with my wife, but I think I let out an audible squeal of delight when I read it.
It is obvious that the author understands the nuances of her host country’s language. But she also seems to get another language used by the people she worked with — the language of their faith. To know the cadence of the rosary and describe the process of how a group of falls into sync while reciting it can only from one who has had more than a passing exposure to this unique prayer form. And I admit when I read about the song Santa Maria Ven, I began to hum the melody of this familiar Latin American Catholic hymn. Understanding the language certainly brings no small joy to each of us who have struggled to learn our host country’s mother tongue. I found though a special joy through the sharing of their faith language, both in word and music. Thank you Lori for being attentive to this facet of the cross cultural experience.
In conclusion, I applaud Ms. DiPrete Brown’s fine work. It is filled with longing and compassion and touches a universal theme we all share, the journey or caminata back to the Source. There we will find meaning for our orphaned existence. Thank you Lori (and Pilgrim Beth) for sharing your walk with us.
Dennis Harrison-Noonan served as Peace Corp Volunteer in Costa Rica 1978–1980. He returned to Latin America with his wife and two children in 1991 to serve a 3 year term with Maryknoll Lay Missioners, working with the Catholic Church Chile. Dennis now runs a small contracting business in Madison Wisconsin.