In his debut novel, Howard pits youthful idealism against the realities of post-colonial Latin America.
Peter Franklin is a Fulbright Scholar living in Guatemala City in 1963, researching the Great National Literacy Campaign and working closely with the U.S. Embassy. At an embassy party he meets Laura Jenson, a Peace Corps volunteer living in a village outside the city; her initial work with wells was cut short after a corrupt official made off with the funds, leaving her to work on launching a literacy program for locals. Peter and Laura slowly forge a relationship, and when Laura becomes involved with a growing revolutionary movement, Peter starts working with her. But quickly the state security forces become aware of their involvement, and the young couple become fugitives in a country they had once hoped to help through peaceful means. Telling a story about Latin America through the eyes of U.S. citizens is a risky move, but it’s one the author pulls off well. Capturing the sense of intellectual hope that resonated in the JFK years, the author has crafted a book that interrogates the place of Americans in the developing world and their capacity for helping solve problems created in large part by their own government’s policies. The novel is subtly critical of the “White Savior” narrative, although at times the story (told from the perspective of a young white man) is overwhelmed by the clear sense of entitlement even supposed liberal reformers can feel. But ultimately this is a cautionary tale for those who believe it is their place to “fix” a country to which they do not belong, a lesson that is just as important today as it was in the early 1960s.
Vivid and complex, this novel is a portrait of a very specific moment in history that feels just as vital today.