Best Memoirs By RPCVs

I am very impressed that so many ( actually only two) RPCVs had anything to say about the “Great  Peace Corps novel” so let’s see what we can generate regarding ‘other’ books about the Peace Corps Experience: Peace Corps Memoirs. 

God knows we have more than a few academic and commercial books, as well as, self published books of what the Peace Corps was like going back to the first days of the agency.

 The very first Peace Corps memoir (written by an RPCV) is Arnold Zeitlin’s To the Peace Corps with Love published by Doubleday in 1965. Zeitlin was a PCV with the first group of Volunteers to Ghana, in 1961. Zeitlin had been a young reporter before going into the Peace Corps, and after his tour he was a journalist all his life, living around the world until his recent retirement.

Another journalist, after his Peace Corps years, is Leonard Levitt. He wrote a terrific book, An African Season, published in 1966 by Simon and Schuster. Levitt served in (then) Tanganyika from 1963-66). He wrote a piece for my first collection of writings by RPCV called Going Up Country. That book was published by Schribners in 1994. Levitt’s piece is about his return to his Peace Corps school in upcounty Tanzania.

In 1968 Alan Weiss (Nigeria 1963-64) published High Risk/High Gain, his account of Peace Corps Training in the U.S. at Columbia University in New York. Weiss was a troubled soul who had as many enemies as he had friends and he lasted about a year in Nigeria, then ETed so that he could marry the girl he left behind. He never published another book besides his tale of Peace Corps Training, though he tried to be a writer and published a few short piece. He also started work on a book about Nigeria. 

Years after the Peace Corps, years after he was married,  he was a writer-in-residence at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in Middlebury, Vermont. While there he read a piece he had written about attending a lecture by Malcolm X while he was in Nigeria. He wrote later, “about 100 people listened to my reading  and it got an electrified response. Rocking response.”

Late one night while at Breadloaf  he drove into town and had an accident. He smashed his van into a bridge abutment. The van was totaled and he went into a coma. He recovered, seemed normal, but after a few months he became manic. He then became depressed. Nine months later on March 10, 1971 he shot a bullet through his heart. He was 33.

Other Peace Corps memoirs came fast and furious in those early years of the Peace Corps. One of the best was The Making Of An Un-American: A Dialogue With Experience by Paul Cowan who was in Ecuador from 1966-67. This book was published by Viking in 1970. And, of course, Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle by Moritz Thomsen (Ecuador 1965-67) that set the standard for Peace Corps memoirs. Moritz published his book in 1969.

It wasn’t, however, to the eighties that a flood of Peace Corps memories began and we had had some wonderful books by RPCVs. Over the next few weeks, I will give you what I consider the best books by PCVs, doing it by regions. I hope you have time and the inclination to respond with your favorite memoirs. I will start with Africa which has produced the largest number of accounts of Peace Corps tours and where it will be very difficult to pick a favorite. Stay tuned.

11 Comments

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  • John-

    Actually one of my favorite novels of this genre has to be by John Nichols, The Milagro Bean Field War.

    Charlie Ipcar
    Ethiopia (1965-68)

  • There is no question in my mind that Mike Tidwell’s memoir, The Ponds of Kalambyi, is by far the best to come out of the Peace Corps. It has the right balance of personal experience, thoughtful analysis, and, all things considered, an upbeat tone. (I confess to having a preference for the upbeat.) His was the first, I think, Peace Corps memoir I read. Beyond that Mike was very kind in giving me some ideas as to how to get my own book published, including the suggestion that I meet with a fellow named John Coyne!

    George Packer’s The Village of Waiting should also be on the list, but I was a bit put off by the negativity in his story, and by the way it ended leaving hanging the possibility that the Peace Corps was being used by the CIA. Packer, of course, has gone on to build the biggest reputation as a writer (I’m guessing here but I read him every other week it seems in The New Yorker).

    Just give Mike the prize and go on to second place!

  • Hello, John. I haven’t read too many PC memoirs, so I will unabashedly admit that I like mine the best! It’s called “A Dry and Thirsty Land” and has been in the John F. Kennedy Library Peace Corps Archives for several years. To make it more widely available, I plan to publish it in January 2010 through my small publishing company, PeaceRose Publishing (www.peacerosepublishing.com), which currently offers a series of suspense novels with the spirit and adventure of my Peace Corps experience serving as a foundation. Thanks!

  • My favorite is “Under the Neem Tree” by Susan Lowrey. I can’t remember exactly why. It must have been well written, heart-felt and interesting.

    I also liked most other RPVC memoirs that I have read, but I can’t remember all the titles. I appreciate all of your recommendations and reviews. I often go into book stores and libraries, looking for books by Peace Corps volunteer and there seems to be no easy way to find them.

    The Saddest Pleasure, by Mortiz Thompsen must also qualify as one of the best post-Peace Corps Memoirs.

    Speaking about sad and powerful books, there is one that I would like to recommend. It is a novel, but has the feel of non-fiction that could have been written by an RPCV (but was not): “A Fine Balance,” by Rohinton Mistry.

  • I second the nomination of Mike Tidwell’s The Ponds of Klamabayi, and also nominate Kristin Holloway’s Monique and the Mango Rains. Both are stunning works of literary non fiction, as well as being great Peace Corps memoirs. Marnie

  • I give my 1st place vote to Tidwell. It best captures the drama of what happens to a PCV trying to get something done in an isolated community whose culture is far different from his own.

  • Whoops! In my eagerness to get Mike Tidwell’s book at the top of the list I forgot about Peter Hessler’s Rivertown, another absolutely first class Peace Corps memoir. I still will go for Tidwell’s book because it is more ‘Peace Corpsee’ (if that is a word) than Hessler’s. Both are worth a reread!

  • Sarah Erdman’s “Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village” gave me a very real sense of what living in a remote African village might be like. She bestows her readers with her obvious love for the place and people she knew there, without shirking from the difficulties or the sometimes ridiculous hypocrisy of communities, governments and aid organizations. Her descriptions of landscape and faces are gorgeously drawn.

    I also enjoyed Moritz Thompson’s crotchety classic “Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle.” Another early PC memoir, by one of the early “older” PCVs. Thompson didn’t sugarcoat a thing about his experiences in Ecuador. Despite living an apparently troubled life, he loved the place enough to remain until his death there in poverty decades later.

    Packer’s “Village of Waiting” is a fantastic read ~ though, like the above commenter, I too felt as if I were left high and dry at the end.

    Becki in Morocco
    http://shwiya-b-shwiya.blogspot.com

  • I loved many of the memoirs recommended by readers, especially “Monique and the Mango Rains,” which I purchased for some of my women friends, but I also admired Peter Hessler’s “Rivertown” for its vividness and grit. Those of us who served in the Community Development era do tend to think we had the true PC experience, but Hessler’s writing is remarkable.

    Patricia Edmisten

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