Arts & Entertainment
Sending letters back home to America
BOOK REVIEW: You Never Try, You Never Know: Six Years in Liberia By Ruth Jacobson, edited by Judith Yarrow, Court Street Press, Paperback, 2011, 402 pages, $18.95
If your mother went to Liberia for six years, what kind of correspondence would she write? “You Never Know, You Never Try: Six Years in Liberia” by Ruth Jacobson is a chance for you to find out. This collection of letters from a middle-aged Peace Corps volunteer and mission worker is less of a literary read and more of a primary source and fascinating insight into the life of American volunteers abroad.
In their 50s, Ruth and Harold Jacobson were well skilled and interested in trying new things. At the time, the Peace Corps was being refurbished and people near the end of their careers were invited to try out the experience. Harold, an all-around mechanic, and R uth, a registered nurse, spent three years in a small village in the bush before joining a Lutheran health mission for another three years.
The story is fairly typical of the Peace Corps experience—Harold’s assignment was to maintain machinery at the nearby agricultural project; Ruth had no assignment at all, but eventually started a pre- and post-natal clinic after some resistance from a Peace Corps administrator. Ruth’s neighbors became her friends and rewarded her medical efforts with constant gifts of food. Ruth and Harold became godparents to a couple of the kids, lodging them and paying to put them through school.
The letters are full of details and short on self-reflection. Major events, including the rape and murder of a fellow volunteer, are downplayed in emotional significance (no doubt to avoid alarming Ruth’s family in the States). Conditions that might fade into the background in a memoir, such as snakes and cockroaches and a constant flow of visitors, remain current.
As Peace Corps volunteers, Ruth and Harold were integrated into village life, giving a window into what it’s like to be a white middle-class American living among traditional African people. The letters are less interesting when Ruth’s work became a broader public health job—organizing a program, flying in and out of diverse villages to administer immunizations and going to constant meetings.
In the end, Ruth and Harold found that “we were very different people than ... when we left for Africa.” They’d become used to a simpler life and decided to move in with friends on a farm in Oregon. Some years after they left, Liberia plunged into civil war; one godchild survived; the other did not. That ending highlights an irony of this kind of work abroad: The benefits to the volunteers tend to last longer than any improvements they make where they’re working.
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.