Review: A Peace Corps Memoir about Mongolia by Matthew Davis

Aside from Peace Corps service in Honduras and years studying and working in Mexico, reviewer Lawrence F. Lihosit lived in a remote Alaskan fishing village for eighteen months. He has self-published seven books and as many pamphlets. Most recently, he partnered with iUniverse to publish Whispering Campaign; Stories from Mesoamerica. Within 60 days that same publisher will release his revised and expanded South of the Frontera; A Peace Corps Memoir. Both are available on

when-things-get-dark-140When Things Get Dark: A Mongolian Winter’s Tale
by Matthew Davis (Mongolia 2000—02)
February, 2010
320 pages

Reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras, 1975-77)

Matthew Davis witnessed a quickly changing Mongolia. His memoir preserves a brief moment in history like a bee caught in amber. This is an honest memoir written in sparse American-lean. His journalism background served him well.

Flown to Mongolia in the year 2000, a twenty-three year old Davis was assigned to teach English in a remote hamlet struggling with change. Only eleven years after the Soviet retreat following nearly seven decades of occupation, the country has been beset by a series of natural disasters that have nearly expunged their livelihood- animals. With dwindling economic means, nation-wide migration to the cities and even foreign lands was underway. Davis found a people beleaguered by the fierce winds of want who found solace in drink. He, far from home, also took to drink.

The landscape and climate are foreboding. Winter temperatures rival those in Alaska. Unlike most of Alaska, there were roads. On one of his trips overland during winter, the jeep in which he traveled stopped, dead. Outside with the driver, he noted that “a gust of wind rattled across the steppe and blew some loose snow on our bodies. The snot in my nose had already frozen.”

Like all wild places on earth, Mongolia offered special obstacles. For instance, the marmot (a large ground squirrel) burrowed all over the steppes and was hunted. Unfortunately, it also can carry the Black Plague. “Every summer,” explained the author,” Mongolian newspapers run the Plague Alert (much as western states in the United States run fire alerts).” His own town was quarantined for several weeks. There were humorous obstacles as well. When trying to agree on a weekend meeting with a Mongolian peer, he bargained for Saturday since Sunday was Christmas Eve. The Mongolian replied, “No, I cannot do it Saturday. Saturday, the hot water comes, and I have lots of work to do.”

Davis describes his surroundings well and also recounts relevant history. He includes many intimate details of his own life: how he drank, loved and fought. Nobody would have confused him with a Mormon missionary. It is refreshing to read a memoir by someone who did not aspire to be a living saint. Few things are harder to put up with than a good example.

This is not to say that the author had no good intentions. Upon returning to his living space, he was surprised to find it clean, bed made. This was quite a change. Before he left, the room had been strewn with filthy clothes, dirty plates, cigarette butts and even a several month old rotting fish. While he had been away, a drunken neighbor broke in with impolite thoughts but was caught. As punishment, he was required to clean the place up. The local police expected Davis to press charges and have his neighbor, a family man, thrown into the Mongolian pokey. “That man,” one officer said, pointing outside to where the man was, “entered a foreigner’s home. That is not good.” Our volunteer, Huck Finn in the Orient, turned the other cheek.

Life in the bush mellows. Whether it be the enormity of nature or being part of the food chain, one cannot help but see things a bit differently. When asked what he had learned in his two years, the author replied, “The Wall Street Journal burns better than The New York Times.” No greenhorn would have said that. Five stars. Check it out.

It is interesting to note that two other recently published books by former Peace Corps volunteers describe Uzbekistan after the Soviet retreat (Taxi to Tashkent by Tom Fleming and Chasing the Sea by Tom Bissell). They also describe abhorrent alcoholism rates. In addition, when recounting history, there is very little about the seven decades during Soviet occupation except mention of drab Soviet style buildings, the remnants of a secret police, stories about the suppression of religion and a population that speaks Russian. I suspect that the Soviets had other major influences upon culture: a great topic for a follow-up book by someone.

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