Book Review: Between Inca Walls by Evelyn Kohl LaTorre

Between Inca Walls – Evelyn Kohl LaTorre (She Writes Press, 2020)

I received an Advance Readers Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. This book is on sale now.

In the early 1960s, Evelyn Kohl was 21-years-old, a sheltered young Catholic woman looking for adventure. Though she had long had the idea of becoming a nun, Evelyn also longed for adventure and so joined the Peace Corps after finishing university. Drawn to Latin America, she began a two year placement in rural Peru.

Evelyn is smart and motivated, eager to work with developing communities, if not always best equipped or supported by her superiors. She is learning Spanish as well as the language of the local Incan peoples. Along with another Peace Corps volunteer, Marie, Evelyn ends up in the town of Abancay. It takes them a while to settle into their position, following a few false leads and figuring out where their skills can be used. They teach PE classes and sewing and lead girls groups. At one point they are preparing to work in a new community being built for the rural farmers. However it becomes clear that the farmers themselves have no intention of moving into this area and the project seems to go nowhere. Evelyn seems to see this as evidence of the rather backwards local people but it’s never clear if these people were consulted about this drastic move and change to their lifestyle or if some bureaucratic decided this would be “best”.

It’s a recurring theme throughout this memoir. Evelyn is a young woman of strong opinions and while this serves her well in many ways, it also makes her seem very judgemental of others. During Peace Corps training, for example, she expresses extreme judgement of her roommate whose “scrawny body and long face didn’t make her especially attractive” and yet sleeps with a lot of men. When Judy becomes involved with their married Spanish instructor, she is forced to leave the program. No mention is made of any repercussions for the man involved.

When Evelyn arrives in Abancay, she has very decided ideas of what her role there should be and rejects the initial tasks given to her by local leaders. The initial tasks given to her are looked down upon because they “didn’t appear to achieve our goal of helping the indigenous people become contributing citizens of their country”. Again, there’s no recognition that these peoples have been living a certain way for thousands of years and perhaps have no interest in contributing to the country in the ways Evelyn sees fit.

All this could be understandable; Evelyn is, after all, young and sheltered. Her experience outside of her own conservative Catholic culture is limited and I can imagine that the idea of another culture different from America being worthwhile might not have been one much explored in her education in the 1960s. That said, this book wasn’t written by Evelyn at age 22. The narrator, Evelyn today, gives no indication that she thinks any different from her younger self or that she learned much from her experiences or ever changed her mind about anything.

In other ways though Evelyn does go through a significant transformation during her years in Peru. From viewing herself as a future nun, she begins to question the strict Catholic beliefs of her upbringing and to examine what she truly believes about religion and her own desires for her future. This is a journey that many young people brought up in religious beliefs go through. Much of Evelyn’s plans and desires for the future begin to centre around a young man named Antonio. Smart, handsome, and dashing, Antonio and Evelyn fall into a tempestuous relationship. They are both very similar and very different and much of the memoir pivots around their struggle to be together and the question of whether or not they have a future together. Evelyn doesn’t see herself living outside of the USA longterm but they can’t seem to find a way to bring Antonio to America. Her practicality butts up against his more passionate nature. Added to this is the question of their physical relationship. Wildly attracted to each other, their relationship pushes the boundaries of what this daily mass attending young woman has been taught is acceptable.

The story ends rather abruptly and, without giving anything away, left me wanting to know how Evelyn and Antonio’s relationship worked out on a practical level. The Acknowledgements tell us that the author is working on a second book about an inter-cultural relationship so I presume she’s saving that part of the story for another volume.

While I didn’t care much for Evelyn herself, her passion for Peru and for her role is evident throughout the story and I did enjoy the glimpse into the Peace Corps in the early 1960s, something I knew very little about. The author captures the remote nature of rural Peru well and the drive and independence required by a young woman to thrive there during this time.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Between Inca Walls by Evelyn Kohl LaTorre”

  1. Although I admit that I have not read many peace corps/missionary-type books, the reason I stopped seeking them out is the few I read were rather selfish and harmful to the people the volunteer purported to help. Two book that I’ve read, one in Africa and the other in South America, both had authors who got the place, claimed to be bored and lonely, and often got sick and had to be cared for by the locals. The woman who went to South America was actually accused of being in the way by locals.

    1. The overall impression I got was that Evelyn and Marie did help the locals but it was almost entirely on their own terms. And, of course, you have to keep in mind that this is her own story, the locals might have a very different perspective. I think for the timeframe of the early 1960s, her attitude was probably pretty normal but it hasn’t aged well.

  2. I think that was a pretty typical attitude back then – we know best what’s good for you, so take it and be grateful. It’s a pity as you say that it sounds as if she hasn’t changed her views over the intervening years. I’d like to think (maybe optimistically) that NGOs now are a bit more aware of asking what help people actually want…

    1. I think you’re probably right and I don’t blame her for having that attitude at the time. She doesn’t give any sense of her current thoughts so it’s impossible to say if she still feels that way or not and I think it was a missed opportunity. I don’t know much about the Peace Corps but I hope they’re more supportive now of what locals want!

  3. I’m glad you were able to find a few things to like about this book, even though it seems like such a shame the author hasn’t been able to reflect more deeply or change her opinions with time! That’s something that tends to bother me when it appears in memoirs, the lack of necessary self-reflection and consideration of the circumstances from a more removed perspective. Of course no one can be objective about their own life, but it’s a pity when no attempt has really been made. But I imagine it would be interesting to learn about Peace Corps history, and the setting does sound lovely!

    1. It’s funny because when I’ve read memoirs by younger people (in their 20s or 30s) I’ve found myself wishing they had waited longer so that they could offer greater perspective on their lives. But this is an author who has clearly lived longer and yet still lacks that longterm perspective. I wonder if her next book will have more of that? But, yes, the Peace Corps stuff was interesting, especially because I know almost nothing about it.

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