Reviewed by Leo Cecchini (Ethiopia 1962-64)
The Tin Can Crucible is a fascinating description by a Peace Corps Volunteer of how he is inculcated into the customs, morals, values, and way of life by the inhabitants of a village where he trains for his teaching assignment in Papua New Guinea. The process is so complete he comes to ultimately accept what would be in his previous life a totally reprehensible act, the murder by the villagers of a woman accused of witchcraft. The writer uses his impressive command of the language to carefully build the step by step process that leads him to comply with his new “family” and their customs. In essence, the Peace Corps experience changes him, not the people he is sent to help.
The story is perhaps a paradigm for the Peace Corps experience. Here is a recent college graduate sent off to a truly primitive culture that is totally different from the one he leaves. It is the classic Peace Corps situation where he winds up living in a grass hut, sleeping on a hard floor, bathing in a natural spring, reading by a kerosene lamp, eating simple food in a family gathering around a fire. The story takes place in his first few weeks when he is assigned to live with a family in a village from where he takes a bus to his classes in a nearby town each day. The family is charged with helping him learn the local language, their customs, their family and community relations, and their way of life.
The writer’s descriptions of his environment are beautiful and evocative. One can visualize the dense forests in the New Guinea highlands where the story unfolds. One captures a good image of these reclusive people who have been the study for many anthropologists. However, as different as these folk may be, the writer draws out the inherent common human traits they share with him and other people.
I found myself drawn back to one of my all-time favorite books, W. H. Hudson’s Green Mansions: A Romance of the Tropical Forest in which a Venezuelan revolutionary takes refuge in the dense forests between eastern Venezuela and Guyana where he comes upon a village of primitive people and a young woman living with an old man who has raised her in the forests where she has become so much a part of nature, instead of talking, she sings like a bird. A pure romantic novel, but stunning in its descriptions. As with this book, Hudson’s revolves around a horrendous act that demonstrates the gulf between one culture and another.
I do not usually read books such as this since I lean to an economy of language in my own writing. I have a hard time reading long passages describing the setting and characters in a story. However, I found myself engrossed by this tale and realized that the author purposely chose to erect a careful and complete story to parallel the process he went through himself to merge into a new culture.
As a US Dept of State Career Foreign Service Officer, Leo Cecchini (Ethiopia 1962-64) served in four continents, he was also an international businessman working in public relations, fish processing, development assistance, finance, clothing manufacture, commercial and residential real estate, wine importing, tourism, and import/export companies.