Peace Corps Writers
Review
   
Creative Recollection of a Foreign Service Life
by Mary Cameron Kilgour (Philippines 1962–64)
self-published
May 2003
64 pages
$10 mailed within the U.S.
     Order from the author at:
     4442 SW 85th Way, Gainesville, FL 32608

  Reviewed by Terez Rose (Gabon 1985–87)
 
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JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN, renowned historian and Medal of Freedom recipient tells us, “We must get beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.” Having completed nineteen years of work in six developing countries, Mary Cameron Kilgour now tells the world her stories in her debut book, Creative Recollection of a Foreign Service Life.
     This self-published collection offers a pleasing variety of occasionally choppy stories and reflections, from a narrow escape from disaster after a bus breaks down in the rain-soaked rural mountains of the Philippines, to a thriller-esque harboring of an unnamed country’s vice-president and his family in the narrator’s apartment.
     In “The Trial,” the only story written in third person, a Latin American woman glimpses an x-ray of her son’s skull, showing a nail jutting through the bone and into his brain. The doctor tells her if they take it out, it will kill him. She can only bring him home, nail intact. Which, let’s face it, will eventually kill him. How great of a hook is that? With its even pacing and satisfying conclusion, this is Kilgour’s most polished and successful story.
     Kilgour has a keen eye for detail, particularly in her reflection pieces. “Peshawar’s old town welcomed us: the gold street, the spice street, the brass trinket makers, Gondhara statues for sale cheap from dark shops. Narrow winding streets out of Dickens or Kipling, the buildings all shades of desert brown. Stopping for tea at a sidewalk shop, we sat on rough-hewn chairs watching this small, exotic world swirl by.”
     “No Accounting for Saintliness” is a breezy account of an Ambassador’s assistant who tries to obtain a quarterly report from a distant, grant-financed co-op. The narrator only wants to stay two days, but the elusive Sister Cristina has no such report ready and the narrator is forced to spend extra time there. At this point, the story grows uneven. The character Manolo, the accountant, is developed, used as a source of some conflict, but then disappears from the narrative action. For some reason this isn’t overly questioned. The narrator simply shrugs, rolls up her sleeves and goes through the records herself on the sixth day. Why didn’t she do it that way in the first place? Is it because this is how it really happened?
     And that’s my biggest complaint: many stories read with the shifting confusion and anecdotal asides of real life. But memories or journal entries rarely translate into a natural story. A well-crafted story doesn’t drop characters, include personal comments (“I was pleased with myself for thinking of such a socially acceptable solution”) or leave in extraneous details and conversations just because it might have happened that way.
     Additionally, creating a collection of “stories and reflections” leaves the reader a bit confused. I wanted to have boundaries — was I reading a nonfiction travelogue or a fictional short story? Different rules, goals and expectations apply to each. And what is a reflection, really? By itself, it may read beautifully, but it produces nothing bigger. In an essay however, there’s a pivotal moment where the writer is changed. They’ve discovered some universal truth that is vivid, searing, unforgettable and must be shared. A well-crafted short story produces the same feeling, sweeping up the reader on the journey. Currently, the journey feels like a bus ride through a city — lots of stops, some quite interesting, but not showing me somewhere new and startling that will stay in my mind long past the time I’ve finished the book (except for the nail in the skull — wow, that’s one I’ll never forget).
     For anyone interested in international travel, development or aid work, or stories set in exotic locales (count me in here), Creative Recollection of a Foreign Service Life offers an attractive palette of different flavors and images from the developing world. As such, the book succeeds. Even when the flaws of the stories frustrated me, I kept returning, eager for the next.
     The lack of an ISBN number however, will limit the book’s circulation. A reader has to really want a book that’s not easily found in a bookstore or through Amazon. If someone were searching for a readily-available collection of impeccably-crafted short stories and thought-provoking essays, I think I’d have to tell them to take a pass here.
 
Terez Rose’s work has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the country. Her essay, “Lessons from Gabon” appears in the anthology, Women Who Eat (Seal Press, November 2003). She is currently completing her first novel, Black Ivory Soul.
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