The Peace Corps volunteers I've met are a singularly humble bunch. They never brag of bravery, rarely name-drop diseases and usually refrain from dazzling language when describing their remarkable — and remarkably challenging — two years.
Ellen Urbani Hiltebrand breaks that mold in "When I Was Elena: A Memoir" (Permanent Press, 304 pp., $28), her proud memoir of Peace Corps service in Guatemala between 1991 and 1993. Please note: She lasted the FULL two years and then some. Nobody thought she would. Hiltebrand reminds us of this several times.
Known in-country as "Elena," she survives countless robberies, a serious attack, debilitating dysentery, worms, threats, stalkings, an attempted rape, three coups and a rumbling revolution. More than half of the 70 or so volunteers who started with Hiltebrand went home before the end of their tours. (Four were raped, a few beaten, one kidnapped, one died.)
"Laughable, in light of the statistics, that on that long-ago day someone bet money on the fact that a little dirt in my hair would be enough to scare me away," Hiltebrand writes. "Even more ironic: The bettors beat me home."
From the start, Elena was different from the other volunteers. A Southern sorority
girl (straight-As, cheerleader) with a spanking-new blueberry backpack and
matching Laura Ashley dress, she was not an idealist and feared chickens.
An article in Cosmo first sparked her interest in the Peace Corps. Signing up
seemed a good way to gain distance from her college boyfriend and, most of
all, to have a "defining" moment, "when something happened ... or we did or said a certain thing or responded to a challenge in such a way that defines who we most truly are."
“When I Was Elena" has an abundance of defining moments. The time Elena used a machete to hack a pit viper that was about to strike a girl (and admits later ignoring symptoms of sexual abuse of same girl). The time she flirted with a police captain to fill out paperwork so she could leave town with a fellow volunteer who had been recently raped. The time diarrhea struck during an arduous hike up to a highland village and she had to decide whether to wipe with her sock or her underwear. (The latter.)
Hiltebrand alternates her own lushly written memoir with tales of six local women and another Peace Corps volunteer. We see Guatemala — and Elena, the heroine of practically every chapter — through the eyes of a pre-teen incest victim; a wife who married for security rather than love; the widow of a disappeared political martyr; a Mayan woman confined to home by her Guatemalan husband and mother-in-law.
All the stories are told in first-person, a strange technique that melds fiction with reality. At its best, Hiltebrand's adoption of other women's personas is riveting, drawing readers deep into smoky kitchens and dark secrets; at its worst, it violates their emotional turf and detracts from the book's credibility. Hiltebrand is no doubt well-meaning, but it feels wrong for her to wear others' emotions for literary purposes, to pretend to know the grief of a real mother who watches a runaway truck kill three daughters.
Hiltebrand's writing is strongest and most original when describing her German shepherd, Calixta. Her devotion to the pup is initially amusing, almost embarrassing, very American. She feeds the pooch orange popsicles from the tienda, and when Cali steps on a scorpion, enlists the help of the mayor to drive her to a veterinarian, who instructs: "To prevent her brain from boiling, keep her cold in the desert. To combat paralysis, give her
vitamins that are not sold in our pharmacies. And to build her strength, feed her protein in this country that does not have enough for its own children."
A friend sacrifices 17 chickens, Hiltebrand rounds up ice and vitamins, Cali lives. The dog later repels numerous unsavory men and probably saves Hiltebrand's life. Cali, who came home to America with Hiltebrand, died in 1999. Hiltebrand lives with her husband and two children in Portland, where she counsels cancer patients.
Causes Ellen Urbani Supports
Pathways to Hope Prison Program (inmates rescue and train service dogs):...