Revolution: The Year [Deb Olin Unferth] Fell In Love & Went To Join the War

It seems the North American teenager is a truly resilient creature.  Even when taken out of their natural environment and dropped into an exotic locale they maintain their normal behavior patterns – angry moping.  The quick summary of Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War goes like this –  Girl meets Boy.  Girl falls for Boy.  Girl and Boy go looking for a Revolution.  Girl and Boy hang out, bored.

Or, as Unferth much more eloquently puts it…

My boyfriend and I went to join the revolution.
We couldn’t find the first revolution.
The second revolution hired us on and then let us go.
We went to the other revolutions in the area – there were several – but every one we came to let us hang around for a few weeks and then made us leave.
We ran out of money and at last we came home.
I was eighteen.  That’s the whole story.

Lucky for us, it’s not.  Much more than another coming of age story, Revolution is a Dummy’s Guide to Central American politics in the 80’s.  The world is upside down, and while Unferth travels to El Salvador with the best intentions of helping out the revolution (o.k., not exactly), in truth she’s really nothing more than a tourist.   One among many.  People come from all over the world to support revolutions (who knew?).  It’s common enough that the Nicaraguan locals had a name for them.  Internationalistas:  Westerners who come and go in waves, following revolutions like the Grateful Dead, with no real personal stake in their outcomes. Around them uprisings become inappropriately festive.

A group of jugglers had come from Canada.  They’d gone to the northern mountains of Nicaragua, to the war zone.  “We walk from town to town,” one told me, “juggling.”

Imagine.  We were walking across their war, juggling.  We were bringing guitars, plays adapted from Gogol, elephants wearing tasseled hats.  I saw it myself and even then I found it a bit odd.  The Nicaraguans wanted land, literacy, a decent doctor.  We wanted a nice sing-a-long and a ballet.  We weren’t a revolution.  We were an armed circus.

Revolution:  The Year I Fell in Love & Went to Join the War is told with a large font in a slim book.  The chapters are anecdotal, clustered around a common theme and organized in loose chronological order.  You are reading a series of impressions written down years after the actual events took place.  Unferth readily admits that her memory for details is shaky and her insights recent.  She second guesses herself frequently.  But while dates and times may be estimates, there is no arguing with the raw emotional honesty or the self-deprecating humor.  No one could be harder on Unferth then she is on herself, though I couldn’t help but feel that some things were being deliberately glossed over – particularly her history with her family.

This isn’t a comfortable book.  But being a teenager isn’t comfortable.  Frequently I found myself squirming self-consciously for a clueless girl I completely identified with.  I think most readers will.  All of us have been young, delusional and in love at one time or another…  usually with a much less interesting story when it’s all over.

Publisher:  Henry Holt and Company, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 8050 9323 0

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3 comments on “Revolution: The Year [Deb Olin Unferth] Fell In Love & Went To Join the War

  1. This is a very… strange subject matter for a book. Interesting, yes, but though I’d be fascinated to sit and talk to someone about these subjects, reading about it seems like it must be frustrating. Just of the little that you’ve quoted, I want to sit the author down and start asking questions. Get the whole story. Clear up the second guessing, get a discussion going…

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    • Biblibio –

      I’ve been trying to write more compact reviews… and now I wonder if maybe I’m losing too much in the process.

      I suppose it is a strange book, though I didn’t take it that way (the book trailer IS very strange – but aren’t they all?). I probably made too much of the second guessing. The fact is, Unferth was a part of the revolution without being at it’s center… I got the feeling she milled around a lot with other protesters. But watching Egypt on the news – isn’t that what the majority of the people were doing? Unferth comes across as even further removed because, frankly, when she got tired of it all (and ran out of money) they left. Not as refugees… her parents picked them up at the border and took them to McDonald’s. I think that says something about our society… probably not good.

      The book is well-written, wry and quirky. Unferth is of the same generation as Sarah Vowell or Janeane Garofalo and it shows. I think you’d like it – I did very much. It reads like a conversation.

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