Review — WHITE CLOUD FREE by Peter Michael Johnson (Paraguay)


White Cloud Free
by Peter Michael Johnson (Paraguay 2002-04)
V Press LC Publisher
160 pages
July 2023
$11.99 (Kindle); $16.97 (Paperback)

Reviewed by Stephen Foehr (Ethiopia 1965-66)


How many lives can a man live?
An English major as a naïve Peace Corps beekeeper.
A soft heart who befriends a 12-year-old village outcast.
A fugitive on the run, with the boy, from a vengeful mob of farmers.
An acolyte of St. Augustine.
A sad-soul mate of a young Paraguayan transgender sex worker.
A drug addict.
A middle-aged washed-out depressive who suffers manic episodes.
A seeker who wants a silent past.

Author of White Cloud Free, a semi-autobiographical memoir.


Memoir — a subjective collection of narratives, where the author remembers experiences, emotions, and events that are emotionally truthful, but not fact-checked — so the reader can’t tell where the author begins or ends as a character. In this, Peter Michael Johnson is an extremely successful memoirist.

A memoir unwraps a person, or, perhaps, more accurately, the author peels the layers of life in an exercise of self-discovery, each layer a palimpsest of factual fantasy, lived for that moment to see if it rings true. On his journey, Johnson recovers bits and pieces of whom he seeks, yet is never satisfied, always pulling along the dirty blanket of regret that he has not discovered a whole true self.

White Cloud Free is a well-structured thriller so convincing of place and characters the reader stops bothering to sort memory from enhanced memory, fact from fiction. The story has veracity; the narrative pace doesn’t allow you to wonder about how true what had happened because you want to read on to what will happen. It’s all totally believable, but you know you are being told a tale.

The utilitarian language avoids sentimentality, when a less disciplined writer would switch to purple ink of pathos. Johnson uses simple strokes to create a picture:

Up close it is a dusty city made up of a patchwork of slums, utilitarian commercial buildings, faded billboards, empty lots, and an occasional walled or gated residential compound featuring coils of razor wire that glint under the streetlights.

This is not a pretty city. It’s a hard-scrabble place where people etch out a living; sex workers, smugglers, criminals who work as cops, small business owners.

Yet, Johnson has poetic skills:

I look toward the heavens to try and calm my mind. The nighttime sky in Táva Rã is incredible as there are hardly any lights for many miles around. It’s infinitely bejeweled, and the dark spaces take on a special character that is perhaps more sublime than the stars themselves. There is a vertiginous sense of depth, layers even, as if peering out from inside some gigantic unbloomed flower with thin purplish petals.

Embedded in the action are sharp hooks meant to snag the reader’s attention, and to tear open the membrane of perceived self. “Peter, how do you become less nervous if you are already nervous?” asked Eden, the young village rascal with big ambitions, who is also a hook to pull on the reader’s heart. “How can I stop my heart from beating fast?”

Peter has no good answer, other than confront what makes you afraid.

Johnson says to Johnson,

I have lived in Táva Rã just long enough to become accustomed to the sleepy rhythms of the remote farming village, but not quite long enough to purge myself of the notion that I am the heroic, noble champion of my own personal odyssey…What in the world makes me think my degree in English qualified me to teach subsistence farmers how to capture colonies of killer bees from the wild? And besides, even if I’m not a complete failure with the whole beekeeping project, what makes me think I will have any lasting impact on the lives of people with whom I now live? It’s worse than foolishness. It’s arrogance, really.

Johnson feels the movement of doubt rip at his idealism, a narrative central to American identity. Throughout the book, this tear widens to reveal the bloody mess of brutality shaped by poverty, kindness that enables victims to survive, the corruption of power, and the stark reality of how the world works. The idealist Peter, seeking justice for a village massacre he and Eden have witnessed, is told:

Peter, there is no guarantee that the men will be punished even if you do report what happened. Paraguay is not a place where justice is the greatest virtue. This is a place where the highest value is power. Those whose have power decided the morals.

Johnson writes this decades after his actual experiences in Paraguay, in a United States where the national morals are being shaped by power-politics battles.

Johnson reads St. Augustine’s Confessions, an autobiography of a man tortured by the memories of his former self, and felt ”some strange kinship with the author.”

Augustine gives voice to the vague suspicion that had been forming in my mind, like dark clouds gathering before a thunderstorm. The notion is almost too troubling to consider for very long: Is the Peace Corps simply an elaborate, misguided effort to cloak my selfish pursuits in altruistic garb?

Is that not a seminal question for all of us, when revising our personal memoir: How do we cloak our selfish pursuits?

Reviewer Stephen Foehr (Ethiopia 1965–66) is the author of numerous nonfiction and fiction books (StephenFoehr. com).

One Comment

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  • “Is that not a seminal question for all of us, when revising our personal memoir: How do we cloak our selfish pursuits?”
    Michael and Stephen hit the nail on the head.

    My selfish pursuit in joining Peace Corps was that since childhood I had dreamed of traveling the world. I had little inkling of what awaited me in Ethiopia, and then in countries beyond Peace Corps service. If, during training, I had written down my expectations of what the next two years would bring, I would have been so, so wrong. But without my initial selfish pursuit, I would not have volunteered.

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