|Dancing Trees and Crocodile Dreams
My Life in a West African Village
by Marcy L. Spaulding (Mali 200002)
Poppy Lane Publishing
Read John Coyne's interview of Marcy Spaulding
|Reviewed by Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 199698)|
|“KEEP A JOURNAL,” I urge my creative writing students. “Share with it as you would a friend, a confidant, even a therapist. ‘Talk’ to it every day, for at least ten minutes, preferably in the morning. Use it to write out your thoughts, plans, worries, fears, observations, hopes anything you wish. Keep it to yourself, though. Don’t show anyone. Not even your mother. Especially not your mother.”
Journaling, in my view anyway, has always been something meant to be private, akin to piano practice not intended for an audience. But RPCV Marcy Spaulding’s book, Dancing Trees and Crocodile Dreams: My Life in a West African Village, which bears the added subtitle, Journals from Two Years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali, has changed my mind, and for the better.
Spaulding’s memoir weaves selected (and presumably undoctored) chronological journal entries spanning her Peace Corps service in Mali with mass-mailings (letters and e-mails home), a handful of her own poems, plus short, poignant essays, called “Retrospectives,” in which she shares her thoughts in hindsight. (See “Balance” excerpt.) The success of this literary tapestry lies in Spaulding’s authorial voice honest, unpretentious, clear, highly intelligent, personal, yet universal.
Spaulding’s thoughtful and thought-provoking journal musings are not your typical egocentric navel-gazings. The questions she wrestles with especially her favorites, “Why am I here?” and, “Can I really do this for two years?” will ring utterly true for most RPCVs, regardless of where or when they served. Her grappling will help PCVs’ families better understand what their loved ones in remote villages are going through. Most of all, Spaulding’s forthrightness will help prepare prospective PCVs for the realities that lie ahead of them. Spaulding uses her journal, as she admits, to “write the roller coaster ride,” and readers of this book will want to join her on that ride.
As I did when I served in the rainforest of Gabon, Spaulding frequently uses her journal to make lists, pro and con. On May 10, 2001, just one year after graduating from Vassar with a degree in Anthropology and nine months into her Peace Corps service, she writes from her Malian village, Bendougouba,
“How is it that I’m crazy enough to stay here? [given the fact that]
But to balance the scales, she quickly adds
“the reasons why I am here and why I do this job:
Spaulding was indeed young just 22 when she went to Mali and her youthful exuberance sometimes shows up in too many exclamation points in her journal entries. But on the whole, her Peace Corps memoir is one of the best I’ve read yet, the only one I’ve happily read twice because I so enjoyed spending time with her and listening to her voice. From now on, when I advise my students to keep a journal, I’ll point to excerpts of Marcy Spaulding’s memoir to prove journaling’s potential.
Bonnie Lee Black teaches English and Creative Nonfiction Writing at UNM-Taos.