The Shortest Way Home
by Elaine Reidy (Dominican Republic 1963–65)
September 2004
369 pages

    Reviewed by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963–65)

    OH, HOW THIS BOOK TOOK ME BACK! Elaine Reidy’s The Shortest Way Home is a bildungsroman, the tale of a young, working class Irish American girl who joins the Peace Corps in 1963, straight out of her hometown of Trowbridge, Massachusetts. When we meet her she’s tough, enterprising, and idealistic. Lina, short for Colleen, files her application on her own, without letting her parents in on her plans. When she’s accepted by the Peace Corps, her parents are horrified and try to stop her, but she will have none of it. We follow her through training in a camp in Palmar (which sounds suspiciously like the place I trained in, in the mountains above Arecibo, Puerto Rico). Esmeralda, where Lina is sent, is clearly the Domincan Republic of Elaine Reidy’s own service. Through her we witness that first encounter with the urban poor, their wretched living conditions, the illnesses that run rampant in the barrios, the rats, the hunger, and the astonishing generosity the Esmeraldans show to any visitor in their homes. With Lina we rail against the shocking unconsciousness of the rich and the obtuseness of American government officials, including the hierarchy of the early Peace Corps.
         Lina, who seems to live on cigarettes and Coca Cola, emerges as a sexually puritanical, hard-working, dedicated, sassy young woman with a head of ever-wilder red hair, a pair of large breasts on an increasingly skinny frame, and innate talents for crooning ballads and winning at cards. One of the best scenes in this book is a game of gin rummy between Lina and Dieudonné, a Haitian journalist and voodoo practitioner, during which Reidy skillfully writes a duel of power and vulnerability at the card table. At one point Dieudonné says,

    “Deal, and forget the innocent act.”
         Lina shrugged. She shuffled fast and fancy, then picked up the deck and cut it several times, one-handed. She set the deck down and looked right into Dieudonné’s eyes.
         He laughed. “Show me how to do that.”
         Lina realized that Dieudonné probably picked up some money playing cards with unwary tourists.
         “You’d better not use this on any innocents.”
         “Cherie, I am not stupid. But I know some people who will find those moves very impressive.”

         It’s the stuff of a Graham Greene novel, but I’m sorry to say that most of the book doesn’t come up to the level of the writing in this scene. Nonetheless, The Shortest Way Home is a valuable piece of literature, particularly for those interested in the early days of the Peace Corps. It describes and evokes the mid-1960s experiences of Volunteers in Latin American countries with a specificity I haven’t found elsewhere.
         As many of us did during our term of duty, Lina loses her virginity along with her innocence, and though her first sexual experience is gentle and quite delicious, the loss of her political innocence is devastating. Reidy searingly and unsentimentally documents those terrible days of the violent upheaval in the Dominican Republic and the eventual invasion by the U. S. Marines. As I closed her novel I was overcome with emotion, remembering the courage of the Volunteers who worked to save lives during the bloodiest weeks. If half of what this fictive tale reveals is true, then Elaine Reidy and the others who served with her deserve our deepest admiration and gratitude for their selfless contribution to the people of the Dominican Republic.

    Marnie Mueller’s Peace Corps novel, Green Fires, was the winner of the Maria Thomas Award for Outstanding Fiction and an American Book Award. The Climate of the Country, her second novel, is set in Tule Lake Japanese American Segregation Camp where she was born. Her most recent novel, My Mother’s Island, was a BookSense 76 Selection.