April 22, 2018

Book Review: “27 Months In The Peace Corps. My Story, Unvarnished” by local author

John Guy LaPlante

The following book review will be of interest to local readers as it concerns a book written by one of our own, a man who has for years written a column for local print newspapers as well as for our three on-line news sources. I got to know him a few years ago when I emailed him about one of his columns and have ever since enjoyed corresponding with him and reading of his adventures.

John Guy LaPlante, an octogenarian who has adopted Connecticut as his home, has probably had more adventures since he retired than many people have in their lifetimes.

First there was his trip Around the World at 75, Alone! Dammit!  followed by his journey through Asia In 80 Days, Oops, 83! Dammit! Each of these odysseys was followed by a book, as titled above. Now he gives us his latest work 27 Months In The Peace Corps. My Story, Unvarnished.

His tale begins as he explains why he became interested in Peace Corps. Without giving away any details, it had something to do with a concert. He moves on through the application and vetting processes, both very detailed and sometimes grueling. His delight at being accepted is somewhat tempered when he learns that he will be sent, not to a Francophone country, as might befit his ability to speak French, but to Ukraine, as an English teacher.

Then come the challenges of getting ready for the trip: deciding what to take, how to deal with all the responsibilities that will remain in Connecticut. The story of getting to the train station  and why he had to leave a wastebasket on the train are clues that his experience and his ability to narrate it are going to be unique. A preliminary meeting in Philadelphia is followed by the flight to Ukraine. Here he discovers, as do all Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs), no doubt, a little bit about what he is in for. He will be posted to the city of Chernihiv.

Three months of training, including some less-than-successful language lessons and he is now a full-fledged volunteer, facing groups of college-age students in English language discussion groups.  As his tale progresses, we meet all sorts of fascinating people: his students, American and Ukrainian Peace Corps staff members, his three host families, American ex-pats living in Ukraine, European travelers, an Iranian family with whom he shares food on a bus and Joe Biden. That’s right, he crossed paths with the Vice-President.

Peace Corps Volunteers are expected to do more that just teach. In the course of his two-year service, John undertakes a few projects, with varying degrees of success: one is to develop a guide to using the city transit system which consists of three different modes: trolley buses, buses and marshrutkas (mini-vans), all very baffling and greatly in need of some sort of organized guide; his other project is to digitize the local library, an institution he comes to greatly appreciate. Add to this a French club and his desire to see and do as much as he can while there and it’s easy to see why the whole experience was such a great adventure.

A few common denominators are the fact that he misses his home and family although we never get the feeling that he is homesick. He misses many of the things that we take for granted (toast!) and he obviously misses the lady in his life, identified only as Milady Annabelle, with whom he is lucky to connect during his service.

However, this is not just a narrative or travelogue. This book would be invaluable for anyone, 18 or 80, contemplating service in  Peace Corps. The processes of both getting in and getting out are carefully detailed. The benefits are clearly laid out as are the drawbacks. Of particular interest are the suggestions, drawn from a lifetime of experience, that he makes for improving  Peace Corps and the experiences of those in it. Many of the chapters end with a “Did You Know” section in which he reminds readers of information about Peace Corps. He is not afraid to “tell it like it is”; we see Peace Corps, warts and all. But on balance, the reader will come away from the book feeling that John’s experience in Peace Corps was a positive one, one that makes it easy to understand why many Peace Corps volunteers “re-up” for another round of service.

John writes as he speaks and in so doing tells a captivating tale. This is a book which can be easily read on two levels: by an armchair traveler who will see the story of a bold retiree undertaking something normally appealing to younger folk (indeed. for a while, he was the oldest active PCV in the world) or by someone interested in joining Peace Corps. In either case, you are guaranteed an enjoyable “read.”

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