Had the author of this book not spoken at my University, I probably would not have picked it up. Not because I have an aversion to its nature, but because my guess, based on its subtitle1, was that it would be overly maudlin and manipulative.
In fact, it’s not as bad as all that. Though technically, the subtitle is still kind of misleading, turning Greg Mortenson into a hero in a way that he’s really not.
This story, in brief, is this: Greg Mortenson, the only surviving son of two Minnesota Lutherans doing missionary work in Tanzania, failed his bid to climb to the summit of K2 (located in Pakistan). Becoming disoriented and lost on his way down, he stumbles into a small, poverty-stricken village called Korphe, where he is cared for. In a fit of charity, he promises to the village leader that he will return and build a school for the village’s children. This was in 1993. To make a long story short: via a number of misfortunes and strokes of incredible good luck, Mortsenson becomes the leader of the Central Asia Institute (run from his home in Bozeman, Montana), which builds these secular schools in Pakistan and, by the book’s end, Afghanistan, which is awash in violence.
By the end of the book, Mortenson has somehow morphed in his description from a big-hearted American building schools for the poor and uneducated into a fighter of terrorism. No doubt that poverty/education and terrorism are very closely linked; no doubt, also, that Mortenson’s secular schools (though, importantly, run by Muslim locals) are now in competition with Wahabi madrassas, which teach math and writing and, well, terrorism.
At one point in the book, Mortenson gets a wife, and later a child. And yet every time he returns to Pakistan, the situation is more dangerous. One doesn’t know whether to admire him or think him a damn fool. I’m surprised his wife hasn’t killed him.
Of course, it’s important to remember that this book was written by David Oliver Relin, not Mortenson. The latter is listed as the author for some unknown reason, I suppose because it’s about him, but I have a feeling Mortenson would be more self-deprecating and modest if he had written his own story.
It’s not the most fabulous piece of writing you’ll ever pick up, but I think it’s message is important, namely that one of the best things one can do to fix the world’s ills is education. Also that Mortsenson, a tall, white Lutheran, managed to accomplish so much in provincial Pakistan because he never tried to impose “Westernness” in any way, more or less allowing the villagers to run things themselves. It’s a testament to the hidden power of people to do good things.
- For the Viking hardcover, it is “One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations… One School at a Time,” although the reference to terrorism was removed for the recent paperback release[↩]