I’m going to try and settle an argument–and create one!–by looking at the shelf of books we have from Peace Corps writers and come up with a list of the ‘best Peace Corps novels.’ I hope with my nomination to engage the community and have you all respond with your “best books.” Later we’ll look at the non-fiction accounts by RPCVs and pick a list of those books.
First, why list of ‘great books’? Well, I guess it all started with John W. De Forest who introduced the notion of “the great American novel” in 1868 in Nation magazine. Novelist De Forest made the point that no American had produced a true painting of the American soul. What De Forest wanted was a book that “produced a true painting of the American soul, a picture of the ordinary emotions and manner of American existence.”
So, what Peace Corps novel has “produced a true painting of the Peace Corps soul?” What RPCV has put down on paper the real experience of being a PCV?
I understand we have more than one great novel but I’ll start the discussion by nominating my ‘best Peace Corps novel.’ It is Festival For Three Thousand Maidens written by Richard Wiley (Korea 1967-69) and published in 1991 by E.P. Dutton. It is the story of Bobby Comstock who arrives in Korea to teach middle school and begins his tour with a compulsory invitation to attend the funeral of the school headmaster’s cousin. In the course of the novel, everything happens to Bobby from being accused of being a North Korean spy when he wanders alone onto the wrong part of a beach. He also has to participates in the reenactment of the bloody semi-historical, semi-mystical pageant that gives the book its title.
As Bobby comes to realize that English is of little use to students who probably won’t go farther than the ninth grade, he also learns, as most other Peace Corps Volunteers do, a lot about himself and life in the third world. Into this mix, Bobby deals with the shock of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, through love and love lost, through bad news about the war in Vietnam, through living with a Korean family, through a bout with tuberculosis and through all the funny and sad and crazy things that happened to all of us who have lived in a different culture.
This is a novel of information, of understanding, and of great language. It is the best novel that I have read by an RPCV about what it is like to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Now, what is your favorite novel and why?