Review by James W. Skelton, Jr. (Ethiopia 1970-72)
Jim LaBate has crafted an exceptional Peace Corps novel that takes place in Golfito, Costa Rica, the same town in which he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in the 1970s. One of the main characters is, coincidentally, named Jim, a prospective PCV, who has just arrived in Costa Rica in 1974 to train for his assignment as a Sports Promoter. While attending in-country orientation in San Jose, one of the Peace Corps administrators advises Jim to change his name if he really wants to immerse himself into the culture. The PC official’s reasoning is that Costa Ricans seem to accept the PCVs more readily if they use a name that’s familiar to them. So, Jim adopts the name Diego and introduces himself with that name when he meets the Costa Rican couple with whom he’ll live in a small suburb of San Jose during three months of language and cross-cultural training.
The other main character is Lilli, who is a young, beautiful, and intelligent Costa Rican high school girl who lives near Diego when he moves to Golfito as a full-fledged PCV. Ultimately, she has to deal with a life changing trauma, and Diego and Christina, the local PCV nurse, help her deal with that personal crisis. According to an article on the Internet, the novel’s story line is based “loosely” on the author’s PCV service, but only he knows how much of the story is purely fictional.
The third most important component of this book is the town of Golfito, which is described in vivid detail in the first two chapters. The most critical aspect of the town is the location of the American Fruit Company, which is situated on the northern side of town. When it began its operations in Golfito, the company’s development plan divided the town into five distinct sections, one of which was provided for the Costa Rican citizens who worked for the company, although the homes there were smaller than those located in the American section. Lilli’s grandfather worked for the company, so Lilli, her mother and grandparents lived in the Costa Rican section of town. This is also where Lilli comes in contact with some of the American students who attended high school in the so-called American zone.
Diego works hard and is determined to encourage the youth of Golfito to try playing different sports like basketball, baseball and track in addition to soccer, their beloved national sport. He succeeds in making many young men become interested in these sports through tireless and creative efforts and competitions. Simultaneously, Diego teaches English to Lilli and Don and Dona Santiago on Thursday evenings, which enables a nice, respectful friendship to foster between Lilli and Diego.
One of the American high school students, a senior named Tom, is attracted to Lilli, who occasionally serves as a babysitter for Tom’s baby sister in the American zone. During the family’s going away party at the American high school, Tom sneaks away and returns to his house where Lilli was working that evening. He tries to charm her and kisses her before recklessly deciding to forcibly rape her on the floor, after which he hurriedly returns to the party. Lilli is hurt and sickened by this attack, and being such an innocent young girl, she really doesn’t know how to process what has just happened to her. As a consequence, she decides to tell no one about it. In the meantime, Tom the rapist returns to the U.S. the next day with his family.
Eventually, Lilli is able, albeit reluctantly, to open up to Dona Santiago about the rape incident. She initially refuses, however, to tell anyone in her family. Dona tells Diego and Diego tells Christina, who convinces Lilli to undergo a pregnancy test, which reveals that she’s pregnant. She tells her mother and grandmother later, and they’re shocked but supportive.
Diego and Christina join forces to support and assist Lilli through this predicament. She wants to have the baby, but Lilli’s macho grandfather has different ideas. He believes his granddaughter has brought shame to the family and decides that she must have an abortion. On the way to get the abortion, Diego and Christina intercede and wrest control of Lilli from her grandfather and take her back to Christina’s medical clinic. For the next few months, Lilli stays with Christina at her apartment. Although Lilli doesn’t go back to school, she’s permitted to do her school work remotely and submit it through a fellow student.
Lilli’s mother moves out of her parents’ home and finds a small place of her own, and Lilli moves in with her. The grandfather stays away from Lilli and begins to feel guilty for what he tried to do. She gives birth to a baby girl, who she names Maria Christina, and who brings great joy to her and her family and friends. Diego and Christina help raise the child, and Diego takes a special interest in her and plays a special role in her and Lilli’s life. Even the grandfather manages to overcome his negative feelings, acknowledges his grave mistake and gets to know the baby.
Everything appears to be turning out well until Diego announces that his 2-year Peace Corps service is coming to an end and he will be returning to the U.S. There’s much sorrow about his upcoming departure, especially for Lilli who has become extremely close to and deeply in love with Diego. The feeling is mutual, but neither of them have allowed themselves to act on their emotional bond.
The author provides a shockingly abrupt ending to the book that jolts the reader back to reality in a way that is quite surprising and remarkable.
This novel is a very good read, although some of the Spanish conversations aren’t translated. At times it seems like there’s a lot of narrative, but it’s an effective narrative style that aids in the presentation of the story. I recommend this book to any RPCV who enjoys reading about the unique ways in which PCVs deal with and succeed in a foreign culture.
Reviewer Jim Skelton served in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia from 1970 to 72, and worked in the Smallpox Eradication Program there. He’s the lead editor and a coauthor of an anthology entitled Eradicating Smallpox in Ethiopia: Peace Corps Volunteers’ Accounts of Their Adventures, Challenges and Achievements, which was published by Peace Corps Writers in 2019. Jim is semi-retired, having practiced law for over 45 years, specializing in upstream international energy transactions in emerging markets. He has written a Peace Corps memoir, a legal textbook, 25 articles for legal periodicals and books, and several book reviews and an essay for PC Worldwide.