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Rising literary star Deb Olin Unferth offers a new twist on the coming-of-age memoir in this utterly unique and captivating story of the year she ran away from college with her Christian boyfriend and followed him to Nicaragua to join the Sandinistas.
Despite their earnest commitment to a myriad of revolutionary causes and to each other, the couple find themselves unwanted, unhelpful, and unprepared as they bop around Central America, looking for "revolution jobs." The year is 1987, a turning point in the Cold War. The East-West balance has begun to tip, although the world doesn't know it yet, especially not Unferth and her fiancé (he proposes on a roadside in El Salvador). The months wear on and cracks begin to form in their relationship: they get fired, they get sick, they run out of money, they grow disillusioned with the revolution and each other. But years later the trip remains fixed in her mind and she finally goes back to Nicaragua to try to make sense of it all. Unferth's heartbreaking and hilarious memoir perfectly captures the youthful search for meaning, and is an absorbing rumination on what happens to a country and its people after the revolution is over.
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Deb Olin Unferth is the author of the story collection Minor Robberies and the novel Vacation, winner of the 2009 Cabell First Novelist Award and a New York Times Book Review Critics' Choice. Her work has been featured in Harper's Magazine, McSweeney's, The Believer, and the Boston Review. She has received two Pushcart Prizes and a 2009 Creative Capital grant for Innovative Literature. She teaches at Wesleyan University and currently lives in New York.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The New World
I had food in my heart and mind that morning. My parents had said they'd pick George and me up at the border and take us anywhere we wanted to eat. I wanted to go to McDonald's. My father thought that was funny. Part of his story for a long time was how the first place I wanted to go when I came back from fomenting the Communist revolution was McDonald's. Hey, to me at that moment, McDonald's looked pretty good. We'd seen McDonald's in Mexico, of course, and Honduras and other places, but we hadn't been able to afford it. Now, approaching the border, I was thinking about that lighted menu board. I was thinking about how I already knew what the food I ordered would look like. I knew what the French fries would look like, what the containers would look like, although I'd never been to that particular McDonald's. I knew what I'd get when I got a sundae. That seemed like a neat and attractive trick to me now. There would be toilet paper in the bathrooms. And soap. There were the little songs on TV, the McDonald's songs that people all over the world knew and I had sung when I was a kid, the Big Mac chant, the Hamburglar. George was asleep beside me, had slept through the last seven hours of desert. "George, wake up," I said. "We're going to McDonald's."
My boyfriend and I went to join the revolution.
We couldn't find the first revolution.
The second revolution hired us on and then let us go.
We went to the other revolutions in the area—there were several—but every one we came to let us hang around for a few weeks and then made us leave.
We ran out of money and at last we came home.
I was eighteen. That's the whole story.
George and I were walking through a shantytown. Two weeks into Mexico, the beginning of our trip, and we were outside Mexico City. An American priest walked ahead. He was saying hello to people and taking their hands. He was saying good-bye to them and waving. Que te vaya bien. Adiós. Dios te bendiga. They chimed back. We walked a long way, following this priest.
It was 1987, and at that time these little liberation theology institutes were set up all over Latin America, "popular churches," they were called, short chapels with small gardens, places for people to get together and help usher in the revolution. The priests were in charge and they could be from anywhere—South America, Spain, the States—but most were from down the street. We liked to drop in when we found these setups. We interviewed whoever happened to be hanging around and we borrowed books from their shelves and got the people to take us out. We liked to get the scoop.
So we'd met this priest at his instituto and he'd brought us to the shantytown. He was doing some work, fixing up some floors. He thought we just might like to see.
When you think of a shantytown, you imagine a few square blocks of board and tin, some chickens running through, but it's a whole city, a thousand thin paths, kilometers and kilometers of housewives standing outside askew miniature-sized houses, not a window pane in sight, the air moist and buzzing.
"These people are born and die here," the priest was telling us. "They have no way to get out." He raised his hand to show us where they had to stay.
"Well, at least they've got their little houses," I said. I was impressed with how tidy it all was. "Some have less than that."
The priest looked over at me.
Then he was gone. Just like that. Left George and me standing by a flower of electrical cords coming out of a pole.
We waited a while. Roosters called to each other in the distance. Then we started puzzling around the shacks, trying to find our way back. We were soon lost. We felt stupid and rude walking along, a couple of idiot gringos slapping at the mosquitoes and grinning. We were sad about the priest. Why had he gone away? He'd left us and we deserved it. We'd been bad-mannered. I'd been bad-mannered, according to George. George knew better than to say a thing like that. Oh yeah? I said. Then why had the priest left George here with me?
These priests for the liberation. You did not want to mess with them. Latin America was swinging to the left, hoisted on pulleys by these radical priests, and some said the Vatican was to blame. In 1962 the pope had summoned the world's bishops to Rome for the Vatican Two Council, to talk about how to renew the Church, how to be relevant to the laypeople. The story goes that the bishops met each fall for four years. They talked about things like how perhaps they should not say mass in Latin anymore because no one understood it (although the entire conference took place in Latin). Some of the South American bishops and priests thought that one way to renew the Church was to organize the lay into groups, maybe even guerrilla armies, and then rise up and overthrow their governments. Soon a continent of priests was storing weapons and reading Marx in the name of Vatican Two. They turned their churches into revolutionary enclaves and invited students to come live in them like a herd of hippies. Some priests held secret meetings with guerrilla rebels. Some manned radio frequencies that kept tabs on the national guard. And when the skirmishes began, some priests came out shooting. Every day their chapels filled with citizens, and the priests never stopped talking about Vatican Two, the theology of liberation, how the Church was a socialist soldier for the poor, and how grateful they were for this mandate from God. Of course the pope didn't mean to produce an infantry of gun-touting South American priests, and he said so, but it was too late.
Late for the pope, but early for George and me. This priest was the first of his kind, we'd found. We walked, lost, through the shantytown. Houses tacked up to each other with clothes hangers, a cobweb of roofs held down with tires. Outhouses winged out over the river. Lightless rooms, cardboard town. We began getting upset at seeing how poor the people were, now that we were looking more carefully. Ladies and kids stopped us and pointed in different directions, laughing behind their hands. A few folks followed us. We handed out all of our bills. We didn't see how we would ever find our way back. George was taking us in circles. Oh, right, he said, he was taking us in circles, perfect. We began to panic.
Suddenly the priest was there, stepped out in front of us. Ho ho. He'd stopped in to look at a floor he and some friends had put in. Lost track of us.
What, had we been nervous about getting stuck here? he wondered. About not being able to get out?
"Okay, okay, we get it already," we said, though we did not.
Excerpted from Revolution by Deb Olin Unferth
Copyright 2011 by Deb Olin Unferth
Published in 2011 by Henry Holt and Company
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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