Book Review: Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island By PeRudiack-Gouldter Rudiak-Gould

Surviving Paradise is a good read for anyone working for the Peace Corps, WorldTeach or any type of volunteer organization.  Rudiak-Gould’s insights regarding life on Ujae in the tropical Marshall Islands are How-to-be-a-Good-Guest-in-Someone-Else’s-Culture 101.

Surviving Paradise is an intriguing read.  In the best tradition of travel literature, Rudiak-Gould goes on a Quest.  He tells an enthralling story about spending a school year as the only white man on a remote archipelago in the South Pacific.  He was sent there by WorldTeach, one of the hundreds of do-good organizations attempting to make our world a better place, whatever that means.

Part of the charm of Rudiak-Gould’s book is that he is honest about how much good he may or may not have done during his year on the island:  “Instead of becoming a first-rate Marshall Islands, the country was becoming a second-rate America.”  After all, exactly why do Ujaens need to learn English?  Does introducing American culture and values really improve their lives?  He wrestled with these issues candidly.  Rudiak-Gould confesses that his sojourn probably changed him at least as much as it changed the islanders. Indeed, Rudiak-Gould is now a graduate student in cultural anthropology with obvious skills in linguistics.  He has written another book called, Practical Marshallese. 

Surviving Paradise has adventure, humor and irony.  “The four Marshallese food groups appeared to be starch, starch, starch and starch.”   On this insignificant island, the new teacher achieves instant celebrity.  “It had not occurred to me that what I might crave more than anything else on this far-flung islet was solitude… anonymity was a luxury.”

“I had prepared myself to forego modern luxuries, only to find that the true sacrifice was primal needs:  privacy, intimacy, understanding, control.”

“For the previous sixteen years I had been a student, assigned to think but never to do.  Now, finally, I was working with my hands instead of my mind.”

Rudiak-Gould has two very different conclusions to his book. 

The second, a disappointing treatise, doesn’t fit the spirit of the travel narrative, the quest.  Rudiak-Gould returns to Ujae three years after his original assignment for a three-month visit.  The Epilogue of Surviving Paradise tracks the issue of global warming as it affects such places as the Marshall Islands and Ujae.  Interesting.  Worth reading.  But it’s a clunky finish to an otherwise excellent travel narrative.

The more authentic conclusion, the better ending prior to the Epilogue, is an uplifting chapter on what the author learned about the people with whom he worked for a year.  While he occasionally drifted from irony to cynicism, he ends his tenure well.  He learns from the Ujaens and they learn from him.

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