Dear Exile

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Hilary Liftin and Kate Montgomery were college roommates and friends whose post-graduate lives started on diverging roads. Kate and her husband took a Peace Corps assignment to teach school for a year in Kenya; Hilary began a career in computerized publishing in Manhattan. What they shared was a deep affection for each other and a commitment to share their experiences with each other. The result is an utterly charming mosaic of clashing cultures and the problems young people face growing up.

Kate’s letters detail the harshness of African village life—the corruption and cruelty of Kenyan schools, the primitive living conditions she must cope with, the bizarre diet enforced upon her, the snakes and fist-sized spiders that become part of her daily milieu, and mostly the overwhelming frustration she experiences in trying to make the world of her young African students a better place. But hers are western ideals and Kenya, she finds, is not interested in them.

Hilary’s letters—so much more personal than Kate’s—trace her life in New York, her apartment hunting, her failed love affairs, her family problems. It is all so unbalanced, so trivial, so commercial, next to Kate’s world. But as Hilary notes: “I’m still allowed to be sad, right?” For what emerges from this wonderful correspondence is that it is not what size stage one acts one’s life upon that matters, but that all our stages have trap-doors we can fall through at any moment.

The contrast of the two cultures, worlds apart, is mesmerizing, but what one comes away from this volume with is the affection of these two young people for each other and the wit with which each narrates her own story. Kate’s perspective is remarkable; Hilary’s passion is winning. Kate’s passion is almost anachronistic; Hilary’s perspective comes and goes like American fads.

The book is a page-turner. The stories of Hilary and Kate are important beyond their narrative lines, beyond their tellers’ years.