BOOKS IN THE MIRROR: Door Into Another World

Last Moon Dancing, Monique Maria Schmidt, Clover Park Press

Wednesday, 17 Aug 2005, 5:00:00 AM

(unassigned)

I suppose there should be some sort of warning to the reader that Monique Maria Schmidt’s Last Moon Dancing begins with a discussion of human waste: “Dear Angela, The medical unit trained me to look at my poop: brown and solid = good; brown, somewhat solid with white specks = worms…”  Schmidt continues in this vein, giving descriptions of excrement and explaining the problems and messages that accompany each type of poop: “too much grape Kool-Aid from care packages,” and “drink lots of water.”

As at happens, in Schmidt’s chronicle of her two years as a young Peace Corps volunteer in a village in Benin, poop continues to be one of the main characters.  We are frequently treated to detailed descriptions of especially memorable times she went number two and the author  even shares heartwarming tales of memorable experiences with number one: “Next to me a man slapped his goat.  It peed on my bag.”

Let’s just put it this way: Schmidt has an uncanny ability for writing about human waste whenever you’re eating.  You sit down to read with a lovely cup of tea and some cookies, and BAM! – there’s a delightful tale of the time she had to make an impromptu bathroom stop by the side of the road.  So if you don’t think you can stomach it (and it does get rather graphic), I gravely warn you, don’t read this book.  (I must admit, for all the bathroom – or rather, lack thereof, for bathrooms by our standards aren’t exactly plentiful in remote Benin – talk, all the discussion of poop does make it clear that even something as simple as going to the bathroom becomes a huge deal in Africa. Indeed, the poop talk helps the reader to understand how entirely different poverty-stricken Africa is from our land of plenty.)

The structure of the book is a bit strange, alternating between letters to the writer’s friend Angela (often in list form), poems, English exercises Schmidt gave to her students, and prose about her experience in Africa (the best part).

I’m not sure whether the unique structure benefits the book or not; I often found myself wishing there were fewer poems (although many of them were beautifully written) and more prose.  The letters to Angela were often entertaining, but more often than not they mentioned our ever-present friend poop, and the prose was just more interesting.  And this isn’t any old ordinary prose, so you want to have as much of it to read as possible. 

To put it mildly, Schmidt has a way with words.  In a simple  description of the moments right after waking up, Schmidt puts something magical into her writing: “For suspended minutes, we were not African or American.  We were not young, scared, or scarred.  We were sacred.  Souls.  A soul.”

The often-tragic story of Schmidt’s years as an English teacher is surprisingly humorous, which is definitely an asset. She writes in such a way that something funny is never more than a page or two away.  At one point, Schmidt discusses the difficulty she has in trying to determine how she should address people in the village: “I…did some naming of my own: Mr. The Man in Gray With Wide Haunches, Mrs. The Woman Who Thinks I’m A German Nun, Mr. The Man With The Indiana Jones Hat, and Mr. The Man Who Thinks His Line, ‘if you marry me, you could stay in Benin forever,’ will work.” 

Some of the humor resides in examples of students’ work in English lessons (it makes you feel guilty for laughing, because you know they are trying their best).  In one student’s midterm exam, the student writes an autobiography in list form including, among other things, his family and goals: “…4. The member of my mother are two sisters and one brother.  5. After school, I want to do a doctor.” 

Schmidt’s letters to Angela are also continually amusing: “Dear Angela, Today: 25 minutes spent looking at a picture of a chocolate cheesecake.”

Schmidt’s trials in attempting to fit in with the villagers make it clear that day-to-day life for people living in remote Africa bare little resemblance to  our lives in the United States.  Rather than forbidding sexual relations between teachers and students, the heads of the school lay out rules governing sexual relations between teachers and students.  Ordinary things to Americans become supernatural in Africa: the students to whom Schmidt attempts to teach English find her tape dispenser so mesmerizing that its mere presence in the classroom is enough to make the class fall silent (which is usually an almost impossible task).

And of course, all of the villagers have trouble with the fact that she isn’t married (not to mention that Schmidt herself has trouble figuring out her own love life - but then, who doesn’t have trouble with this?), thinking that her lack of a man is the cause of all her problems:  “Showing neighborly concern, the gendarmes sauntered over to enlighten me abut the cause of my dysentery: I had no permanent man in the house; therefore, I was not having enough sex.  The older one said it would not bother him to help me stay healthy.”  (Ah, another priceless funny moment.)

Last Moon Dancing transports you to another world like nothing else can.  Schmidt’s honest, funny, and sometimes painful tale opens up a door to another world and thus is incredibly interesting all the way through. And even after reading Schmidt’s delightful and eye-opening story, I still can’t possibly picture what it is actually like to live in a village in Africa.  She described her own experience so well that I can’t  even imagine picture myself being in a place like it: only the bravest out there could ever do what she did and come through it alive, sane, and enlightened.

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