Review — FAST TRAIN HOME by Gus Karlson (China)



Fast Train Home
By Gus Karlson (China)
164 pages
January 2020
$12.99 (paperback), $8.99 (Kindle)

Reviewed by Sue Hoyt Aiken (Ethiopia 1962-64)

This book is a collection of tales as told through the eyes of the PCV both as narrator and participant in the adventures. The adventures span a two year period involving Peace Corps Volunteers living and teaching in China.  Stories form a basis of a conversation even as volunteers arrived in China. As they grew into their teaching assignments they were able to share startling urban scenes that sharply contrasted to their descriptions of high mountain breathtaking, sometimes adverse and risky, stunning tales!

The main character is China brought to light by the author and its buddies through their sometimes humorous in the moment observations and thoughts. This might be just after climbing at a fast clip up a tortuous twisty path or pushing their way through a massive crowd or attempting to control a very large classroom of an extremely joyous and passionate group of students learning English.

The author’s vivid descriptions of crowded plazas, constant noise, and crumbling buildings in which he was supposed to teach and live, are essential both to put into perspective both by the volunteers also the readers of this book.

The crush of the cities was in sharp contrast to the solitude, unbelievably stark beauty and mystical feeling of the high peaks and valleys. Animals and people appear out of the mist. Maps were useless so understanding the language of the local inhabitants led to hidden temples and to hotel rooms with astounding views.    Where would they ever see this again in their lifetime? Stunned silences often spoke louder than words.

One is reminded of the usual mindset of a passing tourist versus someone who also passes through but with the tools of language, the gifts of time and immersion into the culture. Peace Corps experiences worldwide are often beyond comprehension by those to whom we attempt to describe our experiences, especially in words only.

The author’s use of descriptive words creates for the reader a timeless view into the unchanged inhabitants, the trails and peaks of China, and the young people hiking there. His use of words very importantly conveys the challenge of passing through masses of people jammed into a defined space giving us a glimpse of life and the noise this puts out into the universe.

The stories are about the surrounding environment, whether urban or rural, and its effect on the efforts of the PCVs who hope to have a positive impact in the classroom on the young people of China.

Sue Hoyt Aiken (Ethiopia 1962-64), a teacher of English, who was reminded of some of her own adventures both in Ethiopian classrooms as well as in the high country in California, Colorado, Montana, Canada and Ecuador.  All the places she appreciated thinking more about!   

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