A missionary’s daughter recounts her childhood experiences in Haiti.
Debut author Irving, a past contributor to This American Life, was 6 years old when her family first moved from Oregon to Haiti in the early 1980s. Together with her parents and two younger sisters, they spent much of the next decade striving to improve the living conditions of a region experiencing unrelenting social upheaval and drought. The family was led by the fierce determination of their agronomist father. “My father’s vision for utopia,” writes the author, “was agrarian: trees on every hillside, vegetables in every garden, water in every dry streambed. Seeds were small, but they could change the world.” As the narrative progresses, the focal point becomes the author’s conflicting relationship with her father and how it related to his idealistic vision for the country and his family. Irving draws from their various journals, each offering a distinct slant on her experiences of that time and place. She reveals how her parents’ moral and religious zeal intersected and at times clashed with the harsh realities they faced each day in an uncompromising setting. “If, like my father, you suffer from a savior complex,” writes the author, “Haiti is a bleak assignment, but if you are able to enter it unguarded, shielded only by curiosity, you will find the sorrows entangled with a defiant joy.” In the lengthy final section, Irving tracks some of the changes in the region from her vantage point as a young woman returning after a 10-year absence. Later, she would assess further hardships in the capacity of a journalist assigned to cover the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake. Throughout the book, Irving reveals a journalist’s seasoned eye for nuanced regional detail, but her personal journey is surprisingly uninvolving and frequently bogged down by self-consciousness. A tighter edit, including a significant page-count reduction, may have resulted in a more authentically compelling story.
A timely and often insightful perspective on modern-day Haiti woven into an overlong and banal family saga.