An unlikely diplomat scores points for America in a corner of the world hostile to all things American—and not without reason.
Mortenson first came to Pakistan to climb K2, the world’s second-tallest peak, seeking to honor his deceased sister by leaving a necklace of hers atop the summit. The attempt failed, and Mortenson, emaciated and exhausted, was taken in by villagers below and nursed back to health. He vowed to build a school in exchange for their kindness, a goal that would come to seem as insurmountable as the mountain, thanks to corrupt officials and hostility on the part of some locals. Yet, writes Parade magazine contributor Relin, Mortenson had reserves of stubbornness, patience and charm, and, nearly penniless himself, was able to piece together dollars enough to do the job; remarks one donor after writing a hefty check, “You know, some of my ex-wives could spend more than that in a weekend,” adding the proviso that Mortenson build the school as quickly as possible, since said donor wasn’t getting any younger. Just as he had caught the mountaineering bug, Mortenson discovered that he had a knack for building schools and making friends in the glacial heights of Karakoram and the remote deserts of Waziristan; under the auspices of the Central Asia Institute, he has built some 55 schools in places whose leaders had long memories of unfulfilled American promises of such help in exchange for their services during the war against Russia in Afghanistan. Comments Mortenson to Relin, who is a clear and enthusiastic champion of his subject, “We had no problem flying in bags of cash to pay the warlords to fight against the Taliban. I wondered why we couldn’t do the same thing to build roads, and sewers, and schools.”
Answering by delivering what his country will not, Mortenson is “fighting the war on terror the way I think it should be conducted,” Relin writes. This inspiring, adventure-filled book makes that case admirably.