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When I Was Elena
Published Work: 
Kathleen Isaacs, Towson University, MD
School Library Journal

Adult/High School–Arriving in Guatemala in 1992 in clothes color-coordinated with her blueberry backpack and sleeping bag, Ellen Urbani, 22, was never expected to last in the Peace Corps. Other volunteers called her the China Doll. However inexperienced and unprepared she might have been, she was sensible and sturdy, open and willing to learn, as this memoir demonstrates. Shortly after her arrival, she adopted a dog that repelled endless amorous overtures and probably saved her life. She lived in villages in the highlands, places where no other North American had ever spent the night, much less rented a house, and stayed to work with the young people. Women whose lives included mind-numbing drudgery, sexual violence, endless childbearing, death of loved ones, and one happy marriage became good friends. Elena tells her story through her own eyes and through the eyes and the stories of seven of these women (one a fellow volunteer, the others locals, both young and old). Their stories are both ordinary and remarkable in their demonstration of how the human spirit can survive and even thrive; they are what set this memoir apart. Like many other writers, Hiltebrand imagines others lives; she tells readers up front that some of what she has written has been fictionalized, yet insists that the stories are true. She is an honest observer and her voice is convincing. Her mixed feelings of love and anger at the country are clearly conveyed. High school readers will be fascinated by this window into a different world