Deb Olin Unferth’s Intelligence and Wit Will Have You Willingly Following Her Into ‘Revolution’

[25 May 2011]

By Christina Clarkson

Writing about one’s young adulthood can easily turn into pages of self-aggrandizing or self-deprecating stories, which often end up being too sentimental or just plain boring. That’s why Deb Olin Unferth’s memoir, Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, is so refreshing.

From the beginning, Unferth is completely honest about her time spent trying to join the Sandinistas in Central America:  “Nineteen eighty-seven is the year I did nothing. The year I fought in no war, contributed to no cause, didn’t get shot, jailed, or injured.” But she did in fact get something out of it, the results of which are in this well-written and engaging book.

Unferth begins her story at age 17, when she’s a lonely freshman at a large state University. She connects with George, an intense philosophy major, at a campus protest, and is instantly enamored. While Unferth is an atheist Jew, George is a Christian who proscribes to the liberation-theology movement. He swiftly converts her not only to his religion, but also to his lifestyle. He refuses to pay bills, deeming corporations evil, and rather than live in student housing, he moves from place to place every few days. So when George decides to move to Central America to join the revolution, Unferth naturally goes with him. 

They travel to El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama and Guatemala, where guns and violence are plentiful and cities and towns are entrenched in civil wars. In a telling example of her naiveté, George explains to Unferth that San Salvador is under martial law. She thinks he means “Marshall Law”, or something to do with the Marshall Plan, put in place to eradicate communism in Europe following World War II.

Their first job is working at an orphanage in El Salvador. Unferth tries to teach the children English but finds herself an inadequate teacher, and she’s perpetually nervous as gun shots cut through the air. Eventually, the woman running the orphanage fires her because Unferth refuses to wear a bra.

Later, in Nicaragua, they volunteer to help build bikes but are fired for their incompetence. They spend much of their time recording interviews with anyone who will talk to them, from politicians to taxi drivers. Yet Unferth admits that when they returned to the US, they never listened to the tapes again, and she doesn’t know what happened to them.

Unferth is unflinchingly honest about how much of their time was unproductive, and also how completely George dictated her life. He was the one who exchanged their money, who figured out their next destination, who asked questions during the interviews; even though Unferth’s Spanish language skills were better than his. Though Unferth recognizes this inequality, she’s in love, and they eventually get engaged. She writes, “Not everything is explainable by something else. You can love something and be afraid of it. You can want someone and want to run away from wanting them.”

Unferth, who now teaches writing at Wesleyan University, is a model for how to write good creative non-fiction. Her prose is concise but elegant, and the book is a series of short chapters that showcase her talent for an economy of language. There are very few moments of joy in the book, as throughout her travels, Unferth is either sick with dysentery or diarrhea or battling insect-infested rooms. Yet it’s easy to keep moving with her through the story because she maintains a sense of humor while also articulately reflecting on the universal experience of growing up.

If Unferth had ended her memoir with the moment when her parents pick her and George up at the border and they go to McDonald’s, it would still be an engrossing read. But her ties to Central America don’t end when they return to the US. Though Unferth and George break up, she continues to feel a strong connection to him.

Decades later, she’s restless and continually drawn back to Central America, trying to reconnect with and reconcile her past. She hasn’t seen or heard from George in decades. She eventually finds him, but the outcome doesn’t necessarily bring her closure. Unferth can’t neatly tie up her story with a stark epiphany, but she’s got the intelligence and wit to make the reader want to follow her, anyway.

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