Reviewer Reilly Ridgell is the author of the recently released novel Green Pearl Odyssey and the anthology of Micronesian Peace Corps stories Bending to the Trade Winds. He is also the author of the widely used textbook, Pacific Nations and Territories, in print continuously since 1983, and co-author of its elementary level version Pacific Neighbors. Reilly is currently a dean at Guam Community College.
Reviewed by Reilly Ridgell (Micronesia 1971–73)
THE FIRST TWO OR THREE PAGES OF A NOVEL need to grab the readers and make them want to continue reading. Also, if a book is really bad you’ll generally know after the first few pages. In The Henderson Memories author Doug Ingold starts off by introducing us to the two characters through whom the story will unfold. While the first pages weren’t really grabbing me, they were ok. And the other elements — sentence structure, flow, descriptions — were fine. But something was bothering me, nagging at me as I read on. Then it hit me. Look at this:
Connie eats half her Greek salad and turns to her laptop. She enters two words into a search engine, a first name and a last. She pauses, feeling somewhat apprehensive.
Good grief. He’s writing in the present tense. Nobody writes in the present tense. Or do they? Curious, I googled “writing in the present tense” and found a number of web sites with lively discussions on the topic. The consensus seemed to be that while it is possible to write a novel entirely in the present tense, as writers John Updike, Tom Robbins, and others have done successfully, it is very difficult to do well. It can end up reading like stage directions in a screen play, or like a synopsis prepared to pitch the real novel to publishers. Author Emma Darwin likened reading a novel in the present tense to being constantly tapped on the forehead by a teaspoon. Another said present tense books constantly reminded him that he was reading.
If it had just been the tense thing I could have let it go. But there was another problem that was extremely annoying. Ingold apparently doesn’t believe in quotation marks, except when denoting dialogue within dialogue. Notice the following:
Connie wants to talk about her mother’s hair. You said it was long?
Notice how awkward that whole passage is. First you have the narrative voice trying to get into Connie’s head in the present tense. Then you have the second sentence which is confusing until you realize that it’s supposed to be dialogue. A writer should never make it difficult to read his book, but every time I ran into these situations I had to remind myself I was reading dialogue. Then I had to figure out who was talking. It broke my concentration and impeded the flow of the book. This drawback, together with the present tense, is almost the kiss of death for what otherwise is a very interesting and compelling novel. Now there is past tense in the book, either when the characters are reading from a journal or when one is recounting his memories. But I really can’t see the point of writing a good portion of the story in the present tense. And I can’t forgive the author for his lack of quotation marks.
If you can get past the tense and quotation mark issues, there is a really interesting story here. The concept is unique — a woman, Connie, finds out her deceased parents had been Peace Corps Volunteers for a few months in Brazil then lived the rest of their lives without ever telling their children. She looks up one of their fellow Volunteers and tries to find out why they left after only a few months and why they never told their children. Through their conversations and reading of the father’s journal, the author begins to weave a tale that includes all the best elements of a Peace Corps novel: the culture shock, the frustration at Third World inertia, the attitude both rich and poor have of accepting things the way they are, the dealing with bureaucracies of both the Peace Corps and local governments, the HCN’s both sleazy and good, the wondering if anything can be accomplished by Volunteers. It’s all there and quite well done. Connie’s father is the super Peace Corps Volunteer, or as I used to call them, the mountain movers. But he quickly realizes how futile his efforts at improving anybody’s life will be and he spirals dangerously into native religion all in an attempt to get closer to the “real” people. Her mother, meanwhile, takes refuge every weekend in a larger town nearby where she can shop and eat at a good restaurant, and as she does so she feels herself falling away from her husband.
Eventually the father appears to be losing his grip and the Peace Corps sends them home. Along the way in this tale the descriptions of life and the settings are vivid. A number of interesting characters interact with her parents and they are well done. I found no stilted dialogue, noticed no awkward sentences (except as noted with the tense and quotation mark problems) and very few typos. There are a number of interesting twists and turns in the plot, especially at the end, most of which had been cleverly foreshadowed. I believe Wolfenden is a POD/Vanity press since a traditional press editor would never have allowed the lack of quotation marks. Otherwise, the production value of the book seems pretty good. I would have given it a more catchy cover and a better title. “Out of Brazil” would have been perfect except too much of an obvious rip off of “Out of Africa.”
The book did seem to drag in a few places but that may have been more from my exhaustion at having to recognize dialogue and deal with the present tense narrative. If you can get past that, this is really a good Peace Corps story.