Mariantonia : The Lifetime Journey of a Peace Corps Volunteer
Robert L Forster (Honduras 19671–73)
Peace Corps Writers 2021
$19.99 (paperback); $6.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras) — first published on Amazon.com.
Robert Forster has succeeded in writing and publishing a stellar Peace Corps memoir. Well organized, clearly written and superbly edited, it describes his experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer stationed along Honduras’s western frontier bordering El Salvador only two years after the “soccer war.” This is the first such memoir to quote war survivors and describe the war in such a personal manner. The book includes excellent photos (rare for early Peace Corps accounts), maps, a bibliography, a glossary of Spanish words and phrases, as well as sections of the book that elaborate on local history and offer insights into ongoing Honduran social problems. For Peace Corps aficionados or a general audience, this is a great reference and a valuable contribution to Peace Corps literature. The last time I checked (2010), Honduras had hosted the third most volunteers in agency history.
Mr. Forster helped a rural cooperative by keeping records, organizing the physical space to accommodate storage of the records, participating in other local groups, attempting to establish a cooperative store and writing grant proposals. More importantly, he made local friends and established life-long relationships. At that point in history, a large portion of Peace Corps Honduras was involved with rural projects.
In addition to the common volunteer travails like minor illness, Forster explains unusual topics such as Early Termination (ETs), the bane of the agency and normally ignored like a shameful uncle. The number of volunteers who come home before the end of their two-year service has fluctuated but at times and in some places, it has been common. The author describes one Peace Corps acquaintance who suffered from encephalitis, another who was kidnapped during the soccer war and a third who was threatened at gun point. Who is more admirable, the armed combatant who sleeps behind walls or the unarmed, lone volunteer who is housed among the locals? I have been both. The Peace Corps was the most difficult.
The author describes the program in great detail, recounting his salary, the number of vacation days, the offices, modes of travel, housing arrangements, etc. In so doing, he outlines how the agency itself has changed from a flexible group of eccentrics to a punch-drunk former heavy weight champion, sleep walking. I also served in Honduras, two years after Mr. Forster and can attest to the honesty of his description.
The author also includes a chapter titled “A Bicultural Life.” He married a Honduran woman named Mariantonia while serving and is more sensitive than most to cultural differences: his marriage depended upon it. Ten years ago, I reviewed another memoir written and published by a volunteer who married a local. George LeBard (A School for Others: The History of the Belize High School of Agriculture) offered unusual insights. In my case, I courted a Mexican woman during my service which is described in my own book (South of the Frontera; A Peace Corps Memoir). Working as a partner with someone from a different country where they speak a different language and have different customs forces the couple to learn lessons not offered in school. You end up seeing everything in a different hue.
My younger son who served in Panama between 2015 and 2017 knew a transformed agency. I flew down for his graduation ceremony. Forty years after my service, the office was plush and guarded. The directors were well dressed, well-spoken and obsessed with promotion, not service. Everything about the agency had changed to algorithms and nonsensical rules. The Peace Corps is now peopled by an army of men and women in grey flannel suits. It is no longer creative.
So, Mr. Forster’s simple and honest memoir is revolutionary. By clearly remembering, he casts light on what the Peace Corps was and casts a shadow over what it has become. Those prone to wrap themselves in the American flag should avoid this book. It is much too honest for them. Bravo! Bravo, Mr. Forster!