Reviewed by Karin Killian
There was a time, not that long ago, when it was rare for a young woman from the United States to move to a remote village in another nation and spend a few years trying to be useful. It took a particular audacity for women to do this, audacity which shaped both their sense of self-worth and their understanding of the world.
Between Inca Walls: A Peace Corps Memoir by Evelyn La Torre (She Writes Press, 2020) documents this past moment, telling the story of the author’s experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Perú during the 1960s. In the six decades since the U.S. Peace Corps was created, roughly a quarter million Americans have done exactly what Kohl La Torre did, including me. (I also served in Peace Corps Perú, albeit forty years after the author, and on the other end of the country.)
This shared experienced shaped my expectations; I was eager to read about another Peace Corps Volunteer’s experiences working in this country where I met so many amazing people and learned some hard lessons. Although Kohl La Torre has a tendency to over-sentimentalize, I found the opening chapters interesting, especially her descriptions of the rigorous physical training and testing requirements of the early Peace Corps.
Kohl La Torre’s prose is crisp and clear and detailed, often to the point of tedium. Narrative tension throughout the memoir is slack, and roughly half of the book is consumed by the narrator’s chaotic romantic entanglements, especially an on-again-off- again relationship with a Peruvian college student. The chapters mostly depict cyclical conflicts, overcoming one small obstacle after another, nearly all caused, readers are led to assume, by other people’s failures.
There is a reason The Peace Corps was once dubbed “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love.” Moving to another culture forces conscientious volunteers to grow and change and adapt, though, of course, not every volunteer succeeds at doing this.
Between Inca Walls is saturated with self-righteousness. The narrator is critical of Peace Corps program staff, who expect her to follow rules. She is critical of her Peruvian professional counterparts, insisting she knows better. She is critical of Peruvian Catholic traditions, calling them over emotional and sentimental. She refers to the indigenous communities which comprise the majority of the population in Cuzco as “small, dark, leather-skinned Indians,” then proceeds to imply this indigenous population needs outside help so that they can “become contributing citizens of their country.” Moreover, she is continually critical of other women, repeatedly decrying female volunteers’ dress and behavior as inappropriate. She even goes out of her way to comment that she’d never stay in an abusive relationship like ones she observes in some Peruvian families, without unpacking the cultural and socioeconomic realities that oppress such women. Not even her beau escapes repeated disparagement.
Memoir presents writers with a unique opportunity to interrogate the space between our past and present selves, to ask important questions about why we thought what we thought, and how our past beliefs formed us. Kohl La Torre fails to interrogate that space, instead reconstructing past events in prose teeming with defensiveness and ego.
In Between Inca Walls: A Peace Corps Memoir Evelyn Kohl La Torre writes about seeking fulfillment and adventure as a young volunteer in Perú over fifty years ago. At its strongest, this memoir is a cultural artifact depicting one volunteer’s experiences in extraordinary detail, but it is a disappointing portrayal of life as a Peace Corps volunteer.