Review of Lauri Anderson's (Nigeria 1965-67) From Moosehead to Misery Bay

from_moosehead_to_misery_bay_cover_from_moosehead_to_misery_bay_1024x1024From Moosehead to Misery Bay: or The Moose in the VW Bug
by Lauri Anderson (Nigeria 1965–67)
North Star Press
224 pages
June 2013

Reviewed by Don Schlenger (Ethiopia 1966-68)

FROM MOOSEHEAD TO MISERY BAY is a wonderful collection of tales both tall and, according to the author, mostly true. They recount his childhood and adolescence growing up in northern Maine at the southern edge of the great northern forest; his young adulthood overseas as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nigeria and later as a teacher in Micronesia and Turkey; and his life in academe at a small Finnish-American college in the upper peninsula of Michigan. There is very little of what could be called “mainstream” about the life Anderson describes, which makes the book all the more compelling and enjoyable, and there are more than a few “Are you KIDDING?” moments as well.

Here are a few:

Local miners and millworkers trading their guns for a case of beer from his father’s butcher shop, intending to return  in the future when flush and reclaim their weapon, but often never coming back to the shop.

At age eight playing knights in the forest, killing a porcupine and considering it murder because, in his village, you only killed what you were going to eat. Moose and deer, poached or legal, fed most families.

His students in Nigeria trying to kill his barber while he was cutting Anderson’s hair.

A not exactly sober uncle drowning while trying to transport a moose he had shot in his canoe.

It is difficult to imagine an American childhood (we are the same age) more different from my own. He lived on the edge of civilization in northern Maine; I grew up in suburban New Jersey.  I remember, as a high school student, looking at  a map of Maine and realizing that, in the northern third of the state, “There’s nothing there!.” Guns, in his world where hunting was a means of feeding your family, were a familiar everyday part of life. I never saw a gun up close until, as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia, I went along with a Swedish missionary in the Danakil desert, where we were camping, when he shot and killed a Thompson’s gazelle for dinner.

Almost all the people Anderson grew up with were Finns or Swedes and he tells wonderful stories of the immigrants who came to northern Maine to work in the slate mines and lumber mills. I grew up in a  melting pot suburb of New York City and could see the Empire State building from my bedroom window.  Yet we both decided we wanted to join the Peace Corps. He and his future wife were assigned to Nigeria while my wife and I went to Ethiopia.

Anderson was among those caught in the bloody civil war in mid-sixties Nigeria. It included genocide against the Ibos, who had formed a new nation, Biafra, only to have it destroyed and its people subjected to mass slaughter. His chapter on Nigeria is a wonderful and terrifying glimpse of Peace Corps life during this catastrophe. He describes a long and torturous trip he made from his village to where his fiancée was stationed and where they got married. Shortly after this, all Peace Corps personnel were evacuated from the country.  Any returned Volunteer reading this chapter will recognize the everyday life, fears, and absurdities of Peace Corps life in Africa. We followed the events in Nigeria on our shortwave radios via the Voice of America and the BBC, thousands of miles to the east in Ethiopia.

After their evacuation, the Andersons spent two years teaching in Vermont, then on to Michigan State and College of the Pacific for graduate school. At the same time, one of their fellow Nigerian PCV evacuees landed in our town in Ethiopia, where he spent an unhappy year as a secondary school teacher. Similarities between Nigeria and Ethiopia were few, and he felt as though he might as well have been sent to the moon. So he drank a lot and often came by our house, picked up our German shepherd dog, a gift from US Army Mapping Mission GIs who were doing, by heliocopter, an aerial map of Ethiopia at the request of Haile Selassie. He took the dog to the town’s main hotel, brothel, bar, and restaurant where he would order two beers, one for him and one for “Big Boy,” go to the ferenji room and close the door.  Soon he would order two more beers, and so on. Our dog, according to the townspeople, “had the face of a dog but was not a dog”. They may still even talk about the beer drinking ferenji wissha. We all have our nutso Peace Corps stories.

Following graduate school, the Andersons taught in Micronesia, after which he taught in a girls’ school in Turkey while his wife did graduate work in Paris. From the mid-seventies on, Anderson, no longer married to his first wife, has been on the English faculty of Finlandia Universtiy on the upper peninsula of Michigan. His reflections on teaching, students, and faculty life are filled with humor, sadness, and the absurdities of academe. This is, in fact, true of the entire book. Much of it is really funny, but there is also grief, sadness, remorse, and guilt. It is the writer’s skill and heart that make this such a compelling read. In addition to the situations and locations mentioned, there is a short chapter on J.D. Salinger and a discourse on Hemingway, both of whom are heroes of a sort. This is a guy who read and loved Moby Dick as a twelve year old in northern Maine. Out of the mainstream indeed.

I remember reading, in high school, what  my teacher, Miss Cruz, called a picaresque novel. Though this book is non-fiction, it reminded me of that long ago assignment. It is a startling collection of stories written by an American about so many familiar, though not necessarily American, situations, people, and circumstances that it made me think many times “God, I wish I could have written that!”  This is true whether the stories took place in northern Maine, Nigeria, Micronesia, or the upper peninsula. They are filled with the absurdities and pathos of human life wherever they occur. Certainly, if you were a Peace Corps Volunteer you will recognize all of the elements of life pretty much anywhere on the planet. But you will wish, as I did, that you could describe them as well as Lauri Anderson.

Don Schlenger was a Peace Corps Volunteer stationed in a small town in Ethiopia with his wife, Jackie, from 1966 to 1968. He has worked as a high school teacher, guidance counselor, basketball coach, and union negotiator in New Jersey. For the past eleven years, Don and Jackie have worked with autistic adolescents in Wake County, North Carolina.

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