Two Years in the Kingdom
The Adventures of an American Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand
by Blaine L. Comeaux (Thailand 199799)
iUniverse: Writers Club Press
Reviewed by McCabe Coolidge (Bolivia 196668)
READING TWO YEARS IN THE KINGDOM is like going on a trip and trying to decide what to pack. Blaine Comeaux served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand from 19971999 and then stayed in Thailand an extra year to teach before returning to graduate school in the United States. This book focuses on his experiences as a Volunteer in the small northern Thai village of Pakham. But what to make of this hybrid book? Part narrative, part Peace Corps primer, part an ingenious guide to customs ranging from food to vehicles and local idioms.
Comeaux is an easy read when we follow his first steps into his village, selection of a home, getting on with work and eventually finding a sweetheart. But then the narrative stops and other pathways are taken with chapters on Foods of Isaan, Animal Life, Pukham In the News (a lively story of environmental advocacy and non-violence). Then two thirds of the way into this 264-page book, Comeaux resumes his story, The Transition Out. But that isnt the end, he follows with chapters on Language, Thai and English, and concludes with a glossary and an appendix.
Okay then. What do we have here? A mixed bag. Who might want to read this? Id buy the book if I were going to do any traveling in Thailand. Comeaux studied the people and places with a sure eye. He befriended a number of villagers, kept track of his travels and reports in on some interesting details (the disciplining of students, hom gam a form of Eskimo kissing, parochial beliefs about magic and superstition).
Peace Corps recruits should definitely buy it if they are heading for Thailand. The 29 page Introduction is all about Peace Corps, its inception, history and present practice.
Who else? People who enjoy a good story, a window into local customs, or like me, returned Peace Corps Volunteers who enjoy reading about Volunteers in other countries. I particularly enjoyed the piece on the Ordaining of Trees, since I am presently in the midst of a struggle against a developer who wants to clear cut all the trees across the creek from my house for the building of a college dorm to house 500 students. This Buddhist idea may fit well into our neighborhood groups plan to protest the advent of the bulldozers.
Whats missing? Comeaux is filled with gratitude for his two years in Thailand. His reporting is journalistic. Hes very good in attending to details and conversations, but Id like for him to attend to himself a bit more in depth. Why did Comeaux choose to go into the Peace Corps? Did his experience match up with his expectations? What about longing and desire? How did the Peace Corps experience change him? How did he resolve the questions about what to do after Peace Corps? How did he relate to the Peace Corps bureaucracy? Were they supportive of his work? What might be Comeauxs recommendations to others following in his footsteps?
But as I said in the beginning, this book is bit loose-leaf. Id restructure it. First half: narrative to get us in-country, stories of living and working in Pakham, concluding with transitioning out. The second half: local customs, vocabulary, getting around. I like the idea of memoir and travel guide. Maybe next time place the shoes next to the socks, the film next to the camera, one backpack, one carry on.
McCabe Coolidge writes from Beaufort, North Carolina.