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The Road Building by Zaire RPCV Nicholas Hershenow
The Road Building by Zaire RPCV Nicholas Hershenow
THE ROAD BUILDER
by Nicholas Hershenow
From the Author:
When I started this book I was largely motivated by some powerful and intricate, yet still vague, sense of Africa: something to do with the mood of sitting on a porch above a river listening to the timeless sounds of the equatorial night—sounds of the physical forces and creatures and humans and spirits that inhabit the night. A mood of intense beauty, sensuality, and spirituality, but in the context of a sorrowful history and destructive politics and truly outrageous injustice and inequity. This sense carried through the long writing of the book, and I hope the reader will find that it ultimately crystallized into a distinctive vision of Africa, an evocative adventure and love story, and a compelling exploration of memory, history, and the creation of myth.
About the Title:
Will and Kate Haslin reach Ngemba with only the vaguest idea about what life in Africa requires, and with no clear understanding about their own relationship. They've come from San Francisco, where they spent long days sifting through the murky and incomplete history of Kate's willful—and dying—Uncle Pers. And they've come in part precisely because Pers' shadowy past leads them here, to the forested edge of a sprawling savanna.
Sharing only a hint of common language with the local population, the young Americans must reshape themselves inside a culture where people live without expectations. In Ngemba, history merges with myth, magic, and even gossip. It's an isolated world of realists and visionaries, who understand that "sometimes the only way out of a place is to go further in." But most important, Ngemba is the tense, hazy village where Will and Kate learn to dream what they know. When they discover that Uncle Pers may be The Road Builder, a mysterious figure with a colonial connection, their situation becomes precarious.
With the seductive prose of a gifted storyteller, Hershenow transports readers into the exotic but complicated world of modern Africa, a tangled, vibrant, and ultimately dangerous place that is almost impossible for this young American couple to navigate without aid. As Will and Kate anchor themselves between a shifting past and an uncertain future, they rely increasingly on goodwill and friendship.
The Road Builder is an emotionally rich and epic story of romance and exploration—a luminous, wise, and spellbinding debut.
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ABOUT NICHOLAS HERSHENOW
Nicholas Hershenow was a Peace Corps volunteer in Zaire (Congo) in the 1980s. He has worked as the director of a community gardens and fisheries program, a whitewater raft and wilderness guide, and is now a U.S. Forest Service stream survey technician. He has published stories in The Missouri Review, The North American Review, and Western Humanities Review. The Road Builder is his first novel. He lives in McCall, Idaho with his wife and their two children.
A Book Sense 76 Pick!
"How rare to find a novel that seamlessly and artfully blends a beautifully nuanced, character-driven story with a story of epic scope, one that resonates into the largest issues of our world. The Road Builder succeeds brilliantly at this, leading us through both the mystery that is Africa and the mystery that is the human heart. Nicholas Hershenow is a major literary talent, and his debut—and, not incidentally, the debut of BlueHen Books to nurture such talent—are reasons for booklovers to rejoice."
—Robert Olen Butler
1. Much of this novel revolves around communication. Characters speak in different languages, making communication difficult. Even those who speak the same language somehow have trouble connecting. What point(s) do you think Hershenow is making about our modern world?
2. Kate is an enigma. In what way does that drive the novel or create dramatic tension in the story?
3. In Ngemba, history merges with myth and story, so much so that it's hard to discern hard, cold facts. Do you think the merging of narratives and beliefs encourages a broader understanding of the past or do you think it threatens history? If you believe history is threatened by the interweaving, do you believe this is a Western way of thinking?
4. As a corollary question, much of the novel is centered on questions of truth, for instance, what is the actual truth about Uncle Pers' past? How does being uncertain about the core of one's own personal family history affect Kate? How is this different from the way Ngembans respond to their own histories?
5. What is the significance of the title?
6. Some say The Road Builder is a love story, others that it is many love stories. What do you think, and how does love affect the telling of this epic story?
7. Hershenow spent time in Zaire with the Peace Corps, an experience that fueled the novel. Do you think this explains one reason this book offers a different perspective than other books about modern Africa? How does this affect the moral and political imperatives of the book?
8. Will seems lost in the beginning of the book, but eventually finds an anchor. What do you believe allows him to ground himself?
9. Interestingly enough, Tom seems the only character to reach a level of real despair—not the Nurse or Ndose. Is despair a luxury for Tom?
10. Will is a more assertive person in the U.S. than he is in Africa. Kate, however, thrives in Ngemba. Does this reflect something about gender politics, or is it more personal expression of their own self-confidence and flexibility?
11. Will and Kate take a huge leap of faith making the trip to Africa at all. In doing so, they embroil themselves in what may be the most defining experience of their lives. How does faith, of varying kinds, play a role in the novel?
12. This is a novel, in part, about injustice and the efforts certain individuals make to rectify injustice. Various methods and attempts are made to create greater economic equality as well as to create better standards of living. What are those methods? If some are illegal but effective, is that better than the methods that are legal but seem never to demonstrate success?