Reviewed by Angene Wilson (Liberia 1962–64)
THIS NOVEL can be placed in the categories of spiritual fiction, adventure thriller, and mystery and suspense and suggests a relationship to The Alchemist, The Celestine Prophecy, and The Shack. The front cover shows a bridge that might be anywhere, connecting to somewhere, probably representing the journey of the protagonist’s heart, the heart of the young Peace Corps Volunteer, Jessie.
So Bridges is not a Peace Corps memoir, although it was first written after author Wendy Sue Williamson served as a volunteer in Ecuador and Cameroon. It may be partly autobiographical.
After a career as a study abroad director and author of a student travel guide, Study Abroad 101, Williamson found the Bridges manuscript again when she turned 40 and was, as she writes on her blog, a “mature woman of strength” who could say what she wanted to say. Williamson also says that “this was a difficult story to write mainly because it’s so personal.” Her purpose for writing the novel: “there is a reason why we love, far beyond our comprehension and far beyond ourselves.”
The time frame of the novel is Jessie’s Peace Corps tour that begins with in-country training in Cameroon (I wished the back cover blurb said Cameroon rather than western Central Africa). A little more than halfway through the book, Jessie arranges a three month medical leave based on a threatening letter under her door in the northwest Cameroon village where she is a health education volunteer.
However, instead of going home she travels to Paris to see a mysterious lover, Daniel. On her return the Peace Corps decides her village is not a safe site and she transfers in an orphanage in Ecuador where the denouement of the novel occurs.
Jessie, a recent college graduate, whose father left her and whose sensei in karate training took advantage of her, is ripe for learning as a Peace Corps volunteer. She learns about Islam, for example, in several conversations about the differences and similarities between Islam and Christianity: “Jessie tried to see Christianity for a moment from a Muslim perspective.”
Iya, her Cameroonian host mother during training, provides education in food, bathing, and divination, among other things. After Jessie admires a neighbor’s blouse and then is given the blouse, Iya teaches her that there is no difference in the Fulfulde language between “like” and “want” and explains that the neighbor was honored that Jessie liked/wanted her blouse. Iya also asks a traditional doctor to massage Jessie’s twisted ankle with boa fat — successfully.
As I read this novel, I thought back to our own excellent Peace Corps training for Liberia in Pittsburgh by several anthropologists, one of whom ‚ Warren d’Azevedo — died last month at 94, as well as to my own experiences with like/want and with traditional medicine. I have visited both Cameroon and Ecuador so I could relate to the settings and people and cultures. I had more trouble connecting to some of the novel’s discussions of philosophy, religion, and science, although I understood that the protagonist, like many young Peace Corps Volunteers, was searching, was growing up.
When Jessie meets a French stranger named Daniel the novel takes off from an earlier ominous message from a tarantula to an ancient book to alchemy to the Word and winds through several relationships with Cameroonian men, as well as with Daniel in Paris. All the time Jessie is writing in her journal and having amazing dreams — are they the result of the malaria prophylaxis mefloquine? She does eventually discover what love is, where love is.
Angene Wilson taught in teacher training colleges in Sierra Leone (1966-68) and Fiji (1970-72) where her husband was Peace Corps Associate Director and Director after they both served as Volunteers in Liberia (1962-64). Following a M.A. in History/African Studies and a PhD in Humanities Education, she was a professor at the University of Kentucky from 1975 to 2004. She led a Fulbright teacher group in Nigeria in 1980 and was a Fulbright Senior Scholar in Ghana in 1997. Her books include Africa on My Mind: Educating Americans for Fifty Years (2013); Voices from the Peace Corps: Fifty Years of Kentucky Volunteers (2001) edited with husband Jack; Social Studies and the World: Teaching Global Perspectives (2005) with Merry Merryfield; and The Meaning of International Experience for Schools (1993). In the 2000s she and her husband traveled to China, Cuba, Ghana, Malawi, Myanmar, Scotland, and South Africa and completed visiting all the states in the U.S. with North and South Dakota in fall 2013. She is teaching a class for senior citizens entitled “Surprising Africa” in spring 2014. She wishes she could write a novel.