Three young women arrived in British Honduras (Belize) early in June, 1962, filled with the idealism of the early days of the John F. Kennedy administration and a remarkable leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope John XXIII. Papal Volunteers to Latin America (PAVLA) is the Catholic counterpart to Kennedy's Peace Corps. As volunteers for this Catholic organization, Abby, Molly, and Kate discover a world completely different from the one they grew up in.
First, they are cautioned by the priests and nuns that oversee the volunteers that certain types of behavior will be expected of them while other activities will be frowned upon. The frowned-upon activities seem to be everything interesting. They are not to go around taking pictures so Molly hides her camera before one of the nuns can spot it. They are not to fraternize with members of the local populations, and they are particularly cautioned about mingling with the indigenous Garifuna people, the British, the Creoles, sundry foreign residents, and men who aren't priests. It seems they are limited to getting to know the children they will be teaching.
On their first night in country, Abby and Molly listen to a first-hand account from one of the other volunteers of the night Hurricane Hattie swept through and ravaged the countryside a year earlier. Abby had been dismayed by how dilapidated most buildings and neighborhoods had looked until she learned about the storm.
Abby and Molly strike up a friendship that first night and are happy to learn that they are both being sent to Angel Creek, forty miles down the coast from Belize City and the PAVLA House, and also forty miles from the nuns who would certainly curtail their activities.
Gail Porter Mandell, "Abby" in the book, spent almost ten years assembling the memoir out of her own journals, a diary that "Kate" kept during her year there, letters that Mandell's mother and grandmother had saved, and personal recollections of a number of people who had been present. Angel Creek: Where the River Meets the Sea is a special kind of memoir that also tells a coming of age story.
The three young women are certainly not children at the beginning, but it's plain that their year in Belize opens their eyes and their minds in ways that staying home never would do. Because of their location on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, they were vulnerable witnesses to the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962. They were well within range of those missiles, although it's likely they were aimed at much more strategic targets. The matter-of-fact acceptance of the situation by the people they were around every day served as a reminder that worrying wouldn't change something they had no control over, though it did little to diminish that worry.
Near the end of their year, Abby, Kate, and Molly, and the priest who had shared many of their adventures, make a pact to someday return to Angel Creek. After many years of mostly staying in touch, they finally re-unite in a town that has changed but stayed familiar.
Gail Porter Mandell is Professor and Chair of Humanistic Studies Emerita at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana.
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