The Peace Corps Volunteer as a Fictional Character
From the first days of the agency, Peace Corps Volunteers have been rich source for “characters” in novels not written by RPCVs. The first books about “PCVs” were YAs, young adult novels, not serious fiction.
In 1963, Breaking the Bonds: A Novel about the Peace Corps, written by Sharon Spencer, had a short introduction by Sargent Shriver and was dedicated to “All Peace Corps Volunteers serving the world with discipline, determination, endurance, and a rare idealism.” This novel is set in Nigeria.
In 1965 came a series of young adult novels entitled Kathy Martin: Peace Corps Nurse, about a Volunteer in Africa. Another “nursing novel” for a YA audience was written by Rachel G. Payes and published by Avalon Books in 1967.
In 1968 came the most popular of all “Peace Corps novels,” The Zinzin Road. Written by a very successful commercial novelist and political writer, Fletcher Knebel, worked briefly as a Peace Corps evaluator to Liberia. So, he set his novel in Liberia, which he had visited in 1963. Several “real” Volunteers appear as “characters.”
In 1975 the very funny novel Native Intelligence, written by Raymond Sokolov, was published. Sokolov told me he based his novel on stories told to him by his sister and brother-in-law, two PCVs who had served in Chad.
A steady stream of novels have followed. The most important of them, in terms of focusing on Volunteers as characters, are: Tama Janowitz’s A Cannibal in Manhattan (1987) about a Volunteer who brings a cannibal home to New York as her husband; Richard Dooling’s White Man’s Grave (1994), another black comedy that involves a missing Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa.
A footnote on Dooling’s book. He had gone to West Africa to visit his college roommate Michael O’Neill (Sierra Leone 1978-82) and leaving Mike in Africa, Dooling came up with the idea of writing about rebels capturing a PCV. After he had written the book, his close friend and former college roommate Michael O’Neill, was captured by Sierra Leone rebels but escaped. Michael says that the rebels just got tired of feeding him and let him walk away. [And addionally coincidence: Richard and Michael were students together at St. Louis University where I had also attended (years earlier) and all three of us had been students of the great creative writer professor at that college, Dr. Albert Montesi!]
To a much smaller degree, there is the novel [and film] The Horse Whisperer (1995) by first-time author Nicholas Evans who had the husband of Annie Graves an RPCV. The husband doesn’t appear in the book or film, giving Robert Redford lots of space in which to makes his moves.
Carter Coleman’s The Volunteer (1998) focuses on a Volunteer building fish ponds in Tanzania who becomes involved with a beautiful, young school girl. In 2001, Anita Shreve’s The Last Time They Met is partially set in Kenya and has as a character, a young married woman Volunteer, having an affair with her high school boyfriend. Also in 2001 was the first novel by noted Malaysian poet, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, entitled Joss & Gold that has a Peace Corps Volunteer subduing and abandoning a married university professor in Malaysia. She loses her husband, has the PCV’s child, and her daughter searches for her true identity.
Sounds like a Peace Corps novel to me.
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Gosh, how about Theroux’s Jungle Bunnies?
Correction. I suppose I meant Girls at Play. Jungle Lovers is the only similar book title I can see on my shelf, but I swear there was a Jungle Bunnies. Maybe it was a short story.
I was about to bring up Paul Theroux myself when I realized that the blog was about books written by non-RPCVs. And Paul, of course, was a PCV in Malawi (then Nyasaland). But I believe he does not employ a PCV hero until 1989 with the novel My Secret History. The narrator in this perhaps autobiographical novel is a PCV. As I recall, the earlier novels Girls at Play and Jungle Lovers have characters that may be modeled on PCVs but I believe are not identified as such.
Also, this reminds me that when Zinzin Road was published, angry memos reached the evaluation division demanding to know who let this sensationalist novelist go to Liberia on PC funds. Charlie Peters was out of town and, as his deputy, I had to explain carefully that the evaluation division had a policy of occasionally inviting well-known writers (like the New Yorker’s Richard Rovere and novelist Mark Harris) to evaluate our programs overseas.They usually did a first rate job of evaluation — as Fletcher Knebel had — and, in the long run, their acquaintance with the Peace Corps paid dividends for the Peace Corps. I don’t believe the PC was hurt by Zinzin Road and Charlie never stopped his policy of inviting well-known outsiders to write evaluation reports.