A memoir of a 56-year-old woman’s travels in Kazakhstan as a member of the Peace Corps.
To many, joining the Peace Corps seems like a young person’s game: pay off some college loans, court adventure, and lose oneself in the experience of finding oneself. But for Givens (Stuttering, 1997), the decision to take the plunge came late in life, after she’d already been a wife, mother, and psychotherapist. Her story begins well before that fateful choice in 2004, when she was a demure housewife cowed by a speech impediment. She eventually left her first husband, gradually found the self-confidence to start a new life, and married a speech pathologist. Drawn to the prospect of a less conventional existence but one still imbued with purpose, she moved to Kazakhstan with her second husband, Woody. The first of the book’s three parts is dominated by depictions of the author’s angst as she struggled to acclimate herself to jarring new environs and reconnect with a husband from whom she felt increasingly distant. They both suffered from uncomfortable accommodations and were frustrated by the problems posed by a linguistic divide. Although this section ably describes the drama of cultural conflict, it’s less about Kazakhstan or the mission of the Peace Corps than Givens’ own struggles; time and again, she returns to her persistent contretemps with her spouse. Although she writes engagingly, readers who are more interested in the Peace Corps work or its cultural context will likely be frustrated. The anticlimactic crescendo of the author’s “meltdown” amounts to two quick arguments, first with a bus driver, then a colleague. In the second and third sections, however, Givens rediscovers the gumption that got her to Kazakhstan in the first place, finds her stride, and begins to flourish. In step with her sense of renewal, the book finds its own footing, and the author becomes a sharp-eyed journalist of the intriguing cultural separation between her world and Kazakhstan’s. The winner of the Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award for 2015, this book eventually provides a wonderful introduction, through the author’s personal reflection, to the work of the Corps.
A worthwhile read for anyone with an interest in humanitarian work.