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Kate Montgomery
and Hilary Liftin
By Hilary Liftin and Kate Montgomery (Kenya 1996–97)
Vintage Books, $11.00
204 pages

Reviewed by Kitty Thuermer (Mali 1977–79)

Dear Kate: Hujambo, Mama!
and Dear Hilary: YoutawkintoME? Gedddouttahere!

     I can relate.
     When I was asked to review your book —Dear Exile, the story of your friendship charmingly told in letters while Kate was in Peace Corps Kenya and Hilary in Peace Corps Manhattan — the editors thought we might have something in common. And they were right. Frighteningly so.
     For starters, we all went to Yale, which is where the two of you first met, roomed together and bonded. I, of course, was there during the late Jurassic period, when Yale accidentally admitted women, and though the male/female ratio was five to one, I never managed to get laid because I was too dumb to figure out you had to pretend you were from Connecticut College to get any action.
     After you guys graduated, Kate joined Peace Corps, and Hilary took on New York City — both of which I've also experienced. But perhaps my best qualification is that I am an experienced correspondent, evidenced by the Girl Scout merit badge in letter-writing that I received in the fifth grade. (The paperwork for my merit badge in rotten relationships, Hilary, is still being processed.)
     Your friendship survived everything, and it was a pleasure to eavesdrop on your correspondence as if I’d stumbled across your letters in an old trunk in your grandma’s attic.
     Both of you are gifted and wry storytellers. Kate endeared herself to me when she made her husband poke a skinny snake to death, then felt sorry for it because it was the kind of snake, she said, that might have had a stamp collection. And who among us RPCVs can’t relate to Kate’s description of waiting for that first meeting at school:

    I think Dave and I really might go completely insane. I tell myself, “Be calm. Go with it.” The meeting was supposed to be at 9:00. Now it's 2:00. We sit. The wind blows. It’s 3:30. No sign of the headmaster. We wait. It's hot. People say time is seen differently in Africa. This is what they mean. I tell myself to relax. We wait. No work. I count sheep. I count goats. I count chickens. Mohammed prays again. I envy his having religion. We wait. The first student arrives. I listen to his footsteps in the sand. He walks to the classroom to wait. Wind rustles palm leaves. There’s silence. We wait. Mohammed and another teacher talk quietly for a second. I hear phrases in Kiswahili ending with “and the bird died.” I feel deep envy of the bird.

     And Hilary, the self-described “long-term ambassador for the lonely,” captivated me with her crazy, original prose. Like when she had a twitch in her eye, that felt like “there's a bird in my head, beating itself against the window of my eye.” Or when she describes cybersex to Kate:

    Anyway, let's just say I had virtual sex with a man who was probably a lousy lay but an okay typist. I didn’t have to worry about how I looked, whether we loved each other, birth control, or whether he'd stay for breakfast. I thought, I could get used to this.

     What struck me about your year apart was that, although on the surface your worlds were utterly different, in the end you’d both been through a perilous journey from which you each begged to be delivered. Hilary, you lived in New York City, you were single, and you worked for corporate America —“totally selling out”— while Kate was married, living in rural Africa and was trying to save the world. Hilary reveled in living alone while Kate couldn’t remember what it was like not to have twenty children following her every move. Hilary shivered in the Manhattan winter; Kate couldn’t tell if she was feverish from malaria or just suffering the everyday garden-variety Kenyan heat.
     Yet underneath the quirky stories of daily life in New York and the town of Kwale juxtaposed one against the other, there is the feeling that each of you was trying to put on a happier face for the other than was perhaps merited. When Hilary first arrives in New York, she tells Kate, “Rotten meat or no, Kate, oh how you've escaped. Who will I be, now that I'm post-college, post-college boyfriend, post-first job, twenty -six years old, alone in the world, and in need of some income, some home, some company?”
     And though Kate grows to love her adopted country, she laments often that “Kenya has kicked our butts again, Hilary”— as when she is forced to leave one town when the drinking water is found to be unsafe, or when she refuses to cane her students even though that is the “traditional” form of discipline. And by the time the students riot and Kate and her husband come home rather than move to a third post, Hilary has gone through her own trial by a homicidal maniac who lives right below her and screams death threats at every opportunity. Not to mention the string of toxic romances that have soured her year. In one of her last letters to Kate, Hilary writes, “I envy your ability to escape by coming home.”
     But when you come home, Kate — you discover your world will never be the same again, and recall how in the subway one day you spy a newspaper headline about rioting in Nairobi, and “suddenly, I realize where my body is and where it isn’t — and no one else on the subway seems to think this is strange.”
     And what of your friendship, indeed, love for each other? My initial
impression is that the geographic distance brought you closer, made you needier, and freer in your expression of it. And then, in an ironically classic way, once you were in the same town, American time and culture worked hard to keep you apart from each other. So that a pregnant Kate had to make a pilgrimage to a smoky bar to celebrate Hilary's birthday — along with fifty of her other best friends. But Kate at least has learned patience in Africa. So I don’t worry. A relationship that has survived Yale and ringworm and stalking will endure. Trust me.
     Kwaheri, Mama Kate
     Catch you later, Hilary

One who's been there,
Kitty Thuermer

Kitty Thuermer, a magazine editor, lives in Washington, DC.
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