Reviewed by Kathleen Croskran (Addis Ababa; Dilla 1965–67)
Review reprinted with permission. Originally published in Peace Corps Worldwide.
LONG AGO AND FAR AWAY by John Coyne, an ambitious novel spanning time and place, connects the disparate worlds of Parker Bishop, a former CIA agent who retreated to safety and anonymity as a proprietor of a second-hand book store in Westchester County, New York — thus masking his undercover past with respectability that included a beloved wife and two daughters.
Bishop’s wife Sara has just died of cancer when the great love of his youth, the beautiful Irish McCann, reappears unexpectedly, first in the form of her travel guide to Ethiopia, and eventually in person. Irish also has cancer, but is not dying, not yet, not until she — and Parker Bishop — confront their murky history and forty-year-old mystery: the unsolved death of Irish’s college friend Cate in Ethiopia. Cate was a Peace Corps Volunteer, stationed in Fiche when she fell or was pushed from a ledge on the edge of the Rift Valley. Bishop, then a CIA operative, was using Cate and her site mate John as his unwitting sources, and Irish was writing the travel guide to Ethiopia when their lives converged. Was Cate’s death a tragic accident? Or was it murder? Was Bishop an unwitting accessory to a cover-up or just doing his job?
Coyne writes with the easy authority of a man who knows his territory, a territory familiar to those of us lucky enough to be in Ethiopia in the days before Haile Selassie was deposed in “the creeping coup” as Coyne calls it. His evocative recall of sights and sounds from the Piazza to Siddist Kilo in Addis Ababa, the Rift Valley and beyond, with a convincingly realized detour to Menorca, is an added bonus in this book that explores the power of early trauma to color and shape the trajectory of a life.
Although not written as a memoir, fictional or otherwise, Long Ago and Far Away is a meditation on the past, patching time and place together in the quilt that makes up a life — some squares faded, imperfectly realized, others sharp, beautiful and as fresh as the day they happened.
The book is structured as a mystery. Was Cate murdered? By whom? While arriving at the answer to that question is satisfying — and unexpected — solving the mystery fades in importance as ancient hurts, or should I say guilty wounds, are forgiven. Coyne knows we are all guilty of something and finds with Thomas Merton — yes, Merton shows up in this surprising novel — that forgiveness and redemption begin with oneself. “Forgiveness is our salvation, love is our destiny,” Merton says. Perhaps that is the gift of this book that takes the reader down the many paths of one man’s life. The power of forgiveness and love ultimately resolve the unanswered questions at the heart of this novel, questions less about how did Cate die, than how do we all resolve and accept our own messy, complicated lives!
The work of reviewer Kathleen Coskran, writer and teacher, has appeared in several anthologies and her collection of short stories, The High Price of Everything, won a Minnesota Book Award as did Tanzania on Tuesday: Writing by American Women Abroad which she co-edited. She is the recipient of numerous awards, fellowships and residencies including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Bush Artist’s Fellowship, and two grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board. She is currently writing flash fiction on her blog called Pocket Stories
The Inspiring Story of Ethiopia’s Victory over Mussolini’s Invasion, 1935–1941
Reviewed by Janet Lee (Emdeber 1974–76)
AS RETURNED PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEERS from Ethiopia and Eritrea, we are well aware that Ethiopia is one of two Sub-Saharan countries not colonized by a European power; Liberia was founded by freed American slaves and Ethiopia escaped colonial rule through an impressive battle with the Italians at Adwa and a short occupation by the Italians in the late 1930s. I beg forgiveness from the historians for my vast oversimplification of these two monumental events. Fortunately, there has been a serious account of the Battle of Adwa (by Raymond Jonas reviewed in The Herald on December 14, 2012.
Published at the end of last year is a fascinating history of the second invasion of Ethiopia by Italy, Prevail: The Inspiring Story of Ethiopia’s Victory over Mussolini’s Invasion, 1935–1941 by Jeff Pearce, notably with a foreword by Richard Pankhurst. In this hefty volume of 656 pages, made more manageable on my Kindle, Pearce brings to life the many stories of bravery of Ethiopians in battle and the effect it had on the world including various parts of Europe and the United States.
Pearce brings the stories to life in a conversational tone that allows the reader to be part of the action and dialogue. The reader is privy to thoughts and private conversations, be they of the President of the United States, His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie, or Benito Mussolini, himself. The plight of Ethiopia was felt around the world, from the streets of Harlem to venues in India. The conflict drew comments from Winston Churchill to Mahatma Gandhi and the attention of poets such as Langston Hughes. Prize fighter Joe Lewis became the symbol for Ethiopia as he defeated the Italian, Primo Carnera.
Throughout the book, Pearce uses colloquialisms easily understood by those who have lived in Ethiopia, but unobtrusively interpreted for those who haven’t, giving an accurate feel for the climate, culture, beauty and frustration of the country. It is easy to envision an army of barefoot soldiers with spears, even for those of us who encountered a more modern military on a daily basis.
Thoroughly researched, Prevail, has many lessons for the world today. Pick up a copy and see if you agree.
A Conservation Story Paperback
Reviewed by Janet Lee (Emdeber 1974-76).
NOT SO LONG AGO green trees carpeted the hillsides of Ethiopia, Beza’s grandmother told the young girl, the youngest of eleven brothers and sisters. The forests were the homes for bees and other insects. The forests protected the landscape from floods, provided much needed shade, and served as a sanctuary for many native creatures. After years of deforestation and drought, the only remaining forest patches exist surrounding the churches that flourish across the land.
Church Forests. If this sounds a bit familiar, readers of The Herald will recall an article about the Church Forests of Ethiopia describing the work of Dr. Meg Lowman, author of this children’s book, Beza, Who Saved the Forests of Ethiopia, One Church at a Time: A Conservation Story, co-authored by Worku Mulat.
Through the story of the young Beza, the authors describe typical rural life in Ethiopia, deforestation, the importance of conservation, and the efforts of the authors to save the church forests of Ethiopia. Although the text of the storyline is somewhat forced, it accurately describes the hardships of the daily lives of children in rural Ethiopia: large families, fetching water, going to the market, and schooling for boys seen as a greater priority. Beza is fortunate because her family recognizes the important of education. Beza also makes a point of meeting the “Tree Lady,” Dr. Meg Lowman, and her life is transformed. The book is beautifully illustrated with photographs, some of which are quite extraordinary.
The authors credit many who provided support for this book project and the conservation efforts of the church forests, including the Tree Foundation, Brethren Foundation, Spurlino Foundation, and PepperTree Publishers. Beza is available in both English and Amharic. One can only hope that copies of the Amharic version find their way to the schools and libraries in Ethiopia.
Reviewed by Janet Lee (Emdeber 1974-76)
TRANSCEND. SPIRITUAL. Sacred. Aesthetic. Pious. Holy. These thoughts come to mind as the reader examines the photographs in the extraordinary Ethiopian Highlands by travel photographer Lizy Manola, a Greek national who journeyed through Ethiopia over a three-year period of time. The appellation of “travel photographer” trivializes the magnificence of these stunning photos that capture the essence of the subjects photographed. It is apparent that she connected with the people and places of the Ethiopian highlands by focusing her camera on the spiritual life in Ethiopia as represented by its Orthodox Christian churches, rituals, religious services, and the use of religious art.
After a very brief foreword, a short introduction by a photography historian, and a historical overview of Ethiopia, the reader encounters stunning — yes, I am repeating myself — portraits of the Ethiopian faithful in their spiritual environment. Many of the portraits spread across two full pages, fading to black as they cross the gutters of the pages. Wrinkles on the faces of the subjects of the photos are exposed, as are the pores of the skin, the individual gray whiskers of their beards, the furrows of their brows, or the snags of thread on their shammas.
Those of us, who have had the opportunity to visit the rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, Axum, Mekelle, or Gheralta, understand the difficulty in capturing images inside the churches with low natural light flowing from the small windows carved high on exterior walls of cavernous rooms of many of these beautiful churches. Yet, Manola manages, oftentimes with the limited light of a single candle. Stunning.
When there is color and light, as during an infant baptism where the priests are gowned in their ceremonial finery, the colors are vibrant. Ruby red and brilliant gold. The women dressed in pure white. The colorful frescoes on the walls reflect the biblical history of this ancient land.
Although there are some photos of crowd scenes during processionals and liturgical events, the most effective are those of solitary figures caught in meditation or standing guard at an entrance carved out of hard rock. There are baptisms and healings, intimate events not typically seen by an outsider. There are few pictures of children, and none where they are asking for candy or posing for the “ferengi.” This is not that kind of book.
Each photo is briefly labeled, unobtrusively so, with an identifying mark, be it the name of the church or its location. Thumbnail photos of each are listed at the conclusion of the book with greater detail or sometimes an explanation.
At a list price of $250.00, this is not the typical book for a home library. It is printed on heavy paper, with beautiful endpaper, and enclosed in a slipcase. Weighing 8.5 lbs., it is highly unlikely that it will be toted from place to place, but will be displayed in a place of honor where it belongs.
(Ethiopian Highlands is currently available at Amazon for $157.30.)
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End of Issue 19 — January 2015