Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Three Cups of Tea -- Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

I don't read non-fiction very often, but in the past two months I've had the opportunity to read two engaging memoirs -- you can see the first here. Though very different from each other, both Liza Campbell and Greg Mortenson are apt subjects for such works because of the unusual lives they've led; voyeuristic readers like myself will delight in journeying with both of them to a world far different than their own.

In Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson teams up with acclaimed journalist David Oliver Relin to recount the heartwarming and sometimes harrowing tale of Mortenson's mission to create the Central Asia Institute and to build schools for young children across Pakistan and Afghanistan. As the book jacket explains, Mortenson derived his title from a tradition from these impoverished peoples living in the shadow of the Taliban:

"If you want to thrive in Baltisan, you must respect our ways," Haji Ali said, blowing on his bowl. "The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die," he said, laying his hand warmly on Mortenson's own. "Doctor Greg, you must make time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time." (150, Penguin Books 2006 edition)

The book, accordingly, "makes time" for the reader to get to know Greg, and the communities he has helped, as if they were family; by the time one gets to the section of photographs at the center of the edition, it seems as if the faces there are of old friends.

As a result of this mission, Three Cups of Tea moves quite slowly at first. The opening section of the novel weaves together tales from Greg Mortenson's formative years and his first encounters with the villages that will soon consume his every waking moment, and the reader comes to a clear understanding: Greg Mortenson is a man who was destined to move mountains. He was not, however, a man destined to climb mountains, and his failure to summit K2 is what led to his eventual post as the head of the Central Asia Institute. When he descended that great peak, exhausted and defeated, Mortenson found himself in the tiny village of Korphe and was struck by their hospitality, their abject poverty, and their iron-willed determination:

[Mortenson] was appalled to see eighty-two children, seventy-eight boys, and the four girls who had the pluck to join them, kneeling on the frosty ground, in the open. Haji Ali, avoiding Mortenson's eyes, said that the village had no school, and the Pakistani government didn't provide a teacher. [...] So they shared a teacher with the neighboring village...and he taught in Korphe three days a week. The rest of the time the children were left alone to practice the lessons he left behind. [...] The children sat in a circle and began copying their multiplication tables. Most scratched the dirt with sticks they'd brought for that purpose. (31-32, Penguin Books 2006 edition)

The image of these children so desperate to learn was forever burned into Mortenson's brain, and he matched their determination ounce for ounce by setting out to build them a school -- having no idea that his goal would change the course of his life forever.

It takes Mortenson and Relin the first half of the book to recount his arduous journey to build the school in Korphe, but the slow pace up the mountain is worth it: after countless setbacks including stolen equipment, broken hearts, 580 letters, and a sacrifice from the village leader that will bring tears to the eyes of even the stoniest cynic, the view at the summit is breathtaking. It is certainly no surprise that Mortenson succeeds -- after all, the book wouldn't exist without his incredible legacy of over 50 schools in the area and counting -- but Mortenson and Relin do an excellent job of providing suspense even when the outcome is inevitable.

Certainly, the writing has its flaws. The leitmotif of tea becomes quite heavy-handed throughout; though building community through the sharing and understanding of traditions is certainly central to Mortenson's mission and therefore the book itself, the constant reference to the drinking of tea doesn't allow for the reader to make those connections herself. It's almost as if Mortenson and Relin were worried that we might forget that we are reading Three Cups of Tea and therefore included strategic "product placement" to keep it in the forefronts of our minds. And the authorship of the book itself raises concerns; it is understandable for Greg Mortenson to write a one-sided account of his school-building mission, but it is problematic for a journalist such as David Oliver Relin to seem so obviously biased in his reporting about Mortenson and the CAI. In a few brief places, Mortenson's "downsides" are revealed to the reader, and the flaws within his mission exposed, but these are so quickly swept under the rug that the rosy-hued portrait remains, and this seems dishonest for a true journalist.

On the whole, however, Three Cups of Tea is an inspirational read and a book that will leave readers feeling uplifted: the clich├ęs about one man changing the world and no man being an island, at least in these 330 pages, turn out to be true.

[For more information about Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson, the CAI, and how you can contribute, visit http://www.threecupsoftea.com/]

Final Verdict: ***

1 comment:

  1. I liked it too, though the first half did move slowly.

    I'm reading Water for Elephants now. Have you read it?