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When I Was Elena

Ellen Urbani

64 ratings by Goodreads
ISBN 10: 1579621244 / ISBN 13: 9781579621247
Published by Permanent Press, 2006
Used Condition: Fair
From Better World Books (Mishawaka, IN, U.S.A.)

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Former Library book. Shows definite wear, and perhaps considerable marking on inside. Bookseller Inventory # GRP87519431

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Bibliographic Details

Title: When I Was Elena

Publisher: Permanent Press

Publication Date: 2006

Book Condition:Fair

Edition: Unknown.

About this title


When I Was Elena is an extraordinary account of a young American woman's sojourn in the guerrilla-infested mountains of Guatemala. Shattering the concept of a typical memoir, the author's personal story is interlaced, chapter-for-chapter, with tales told from the perspectives of seven indigenous women she encountered during her journey. At once a coming-of-age adventure and a haunting history of the struggle to overcome oppression - both personal and cultural - this genre-breaching work heralds the arrival of a daring new talent in American literature.

At age 22, Ellen Urbani left behind a classic Middle America upbringing, moving from a Southern sorority house into a scorpion-infested mud hut in order to live, work, and immerse herself in the culture of Guatemala's poorest villagers. There she encountered seven local women - among them the wife of a political martyr, a twelve-year-old incest victim, and an escapee from house arrest - whose experiences unexpectedly illuminated her own. Told with unflinching honesty, disarming humor, and an astonishing ear for dialect, this is a work of such atmospheric accuracy that the scent of fire-roasted tortillas virtually wafts from the pages as this tiny country - and the women who occupy it - bursts to life.

A paean to friendship and the resilience it lends to the human spirit, When I Was Elena joins a host of disparate voices into a composite of masterful storytelling. It echoes as a work of singular achievement.

From School Library Journal:

Adult/High School–Arriving in Guatemala in 1992 in clothes color-coordinated with her blueberry backpack and sleeping bag, Ellen Urbani, 22, was never expected to last in the Peace Corps. Other volunteers called her the China Doll. However inexperienced and unprepared she might have been, she was sensible and sturdy, open and willing to learn, as this memoir demonstrates. Shortly after her arrival, she adopted a dog that repelled endless amorous overtures and probably saved her life. She lived in villages in the highlands, places where no other North American had ever spent the night, much less rented a house, and stayed to work with the young people. Women whose lives included mind-numbing drudgery, sexual violence, endless childbearing, death of loved ones, and one happy marriage became good friends. Elena tells her story through her own eyes and through the eyes and the stories of seven of these women (one a fellow volunteer, the others locals, both young and old). Their stories are both ordinary and remarkable in their demonstration of how the human spirit can survive and even thrive; they are what set this memoir apart. Like many other writers, Hiltebrand imagines others lives; she tells readers up front that some of what she has written has been fictionalized, yet insists that the stories are true. She is an honest observer and her voice is convincing. Her mixed feelings of love and anger at the country are clearly conveyed. High school readers will be fascinated by this window into a different world.–Kathleen Isaacs, Towson University, MD
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