Review of Second Volume (The Americas) of Peace Corps Stories

gather-the-fruit-175Gather The Fruit One By One: 50 Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories:Volume Two, The Americas
Edited by Pat Alter (Paraguay 1970–1972) and Bernie Alter (India 1967–1969)
Series editor Jane Albritton (India 1967–69)
Travelers’ Tales
May 2011
314 pages

Reviewed by Dan Close (Ethiopia 1966–68)

GATHER THE FRUIT ONE BY ONE: 50 Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories: Volume Two, The Americas is the second in the series of four books of essays by Peace Corps Volunteers collected by Jane Albritton and her editors. The remaining volumes cover Africa, Eurasia, and Asia and the Pacific.

I met a traveler from a far-off land who said, “Here’s a story for you! Here’s a great story for you. And it’s true. I know, because it happened to me.”

Actually, here are forty-six extraordinary tales of life lived in the Americas outside of America. Some are old; some are new. They are classic tales of inner discovery and keen observations of newly-experienced cultures and individuals.

Let me digress for a moment. I promise I’ll circle back to the subject within a few lines. The digression will have a point to it.

I recently had the good fortune to be at a concert presented by Alturas Duo, two musicians who specialize in classical chamber music and traditional South American music. They play the guitar, the viola, and the charango. Boy, do they play the charango! (Originally, charangos were armadillos who gave their lives for music by having their exoskeletons strung with catgut and played like tiny guitars. Nowadays, charangos are more often made of wood. But I digress.)

Listening to each of those songs of South America played by Alturas Duo was like traveling back to the Andean highlands. These were beautiful songs, and their renditions were inspired. They captured the soul of the old traditional cultures.

That is what the stories in this volume are like. They are more like songs than essays. They are songs that capture the essence of Volunteer life.

The tales told by these PCVs took me on extraordinary journeys. I found myself treasuring individual stories. I would read one or two at a time. I would savor them. At one point, one of the writers says, “You just had to be there”, which is true, but these stories get you as close as possible to being there. If great art is the best possible reflection of the truth, a lot of these stories are great art. That is, they get really close to the truth.

I delved into the richness of each experience as if it were a daily feast. I traveled with Ellen Urbani (Guatemala) through a story — Our Samuel — that began in whimsy and ended in the darkness and horror of a society beset by multiple coups and a military out of control. I explored differences, similarities, and communication in Mark Brazaitis’ (Guatemala) deeply personal and moving poem First Words. I found myself in the midst of sanctioned violence and death in Jeannette Leboyer’s (Paraguay) The Underbelly. I was stunned by the revelation of true unboundaried (not a misspelling) humanity in Shane ‘Jose’ Townsend’s (Bolivia) The Boy From ‘Kill the Cat.’ This little diamond of a tale is just over two pages long. They are two pages everyone in the world should read.

Here are some more similes for you! It was like being at a party and watching a piñata being struck. Here were all these terrific stories falling all over the place like pieces of brightly-wrapped candy. Again, it was like a long-delayed family reunion, where you discover a whole lot of cousins with stories to tell, all of them as fascinating as your own. It was a great idea to have these volumes available for our own 50th Anniversary reunion. They will be available in Washington. If you are not able to attend the national festivities (being overbooked and overburdened like RPCVs seem always to be), you can, by buying them through your local independent bookstore or through the internet, use these volumes to reconnect with your continents and your peers and your own memories. These books are easy to obtain. They are available. They make fascinating reading. Buy them.

But they are not only for returned Peace Corps Volunteers. They should appeal to the general public as well; at least to that part of the general public that has ever asked you “What was it like, anyway?” Here are your answers. All your friends should have copies. Every university library should have copies for perusal by students considering joining up. And for the record. Because they are a great part of the record; a delicious part of the record. Source material, actually. The place where the rubber meets the road; or where the iron meets the gravel, more likely. Evidently, while none of us seems to have yet been destined to write the Great New York Times Best Seller List American Peace Corps Novel, hundreds of us have written great Peace Corps stories.

Here they are. Enjoy them. They even contain secrets never before revealed in print, like Kendra Lachiniet’s Little Library of Horrors (Paraguay); or Bob Hudgens’ What They Don’t Teach You… (in training.) (Bolivia). All I will tell you about the latter is that it takes place on the open back of a truck. On top of a pile of sacks and boxes. With about forty witnesses. The rest, you’ll have to find out yourself. Anabegonda!

Dan Close lives and writes in the hills of northwestern Vermont. His latest two books are What The Abenaki Say About Dogs… (poetry) and A Year On The Bus (essays). He is currently working on a novel, The Bold MacGregor.

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