Review

From Rucksack to Backpack
A Young Woman's Journey in a
Newly Evolving World

by Juliane Heyman (Staff PC/W 1961–66)
Xlibris Corporation,
May 2004
158 pages
$20.99

    Reviewed by Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 1965–67)

    THE FIRST ANECDOTE in this charming memoir opens in the spring of 1943 with the Dansig-born author hiking with a Swedish friend in the Poconos. They are carrying rucksacks and have arrived at a small town where they are looking for accommodations for the night. To their astonishment they are ordered into a police car and taken to the local station for questioning. Women hiking with packs were so rare in the United States at that time that the officers assumed they were runaways on their way to prostitution. This first story is a lovely preparation for the travel adventures of a rare young woman traveling ahead of her time, in parts of the world where her presence invites a crowd, where she meets hardship and uncertainty with curiosity and grace.
         In the introduction Juliane Heyman briefly describes her family’s long and harrowing flight from the Nazis (including her parents’ brief imprisonment) and eventual relocation in the United States. Most of her relatives were killed in concentration camps and as a young girl she survived many narrow escapes. When they reach New York, she says “I had not been in school for a year and a half. My parents sent me first to a boarding school to learn English where I experienced culture shock, since the high school girls were so different from me. I hardly knew what they were talking about.” One might expect her difficult early years to turn her into a homebody, but, after graduating from Barnard College and earning two masters degrees from the University of California, she chose “to go out into the world, and got a job as a civilian librarian for the Air Force in Japan . . . . It was the beginning of life in other countries.”
         After her tour in Japan she travels around the world in the early 1950s. With two young Swiss men she makes the nearly impossible journey by car from India to Europe, going through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Yugoslavia. It was a time when roads were chancy and petrol not always available. The recital of her other adventures sounds like somebody’s wish list including working on a kibbutz in Israel, establishing a library in Hue, Viet Nam in the late 50s, and working as a library consultant in Pakistan in the early 60s where she met Sargent Shriver.
         Her meeting with Shriver inspired her to become a founding member of the Peace Corps staff, working from 1961 to 1966 as a training officer and later Deputy of the Near East/South Asia Division of the Training Department. In this position she traveled often to Asia and trekked in Nepal. “We did not see any Westerners, as trekking in Nepal only became popular a few years later.” I admit to reading this book with a great deal of envy because she traveled before the world had shrunk to its present size; before western culture permeated every corner of the earth; before it was dangerous for an American to travel in Iran and Afghanistan; before the advent of adventure travel.
         Her style is modest, simple, straightforward. Her adventures are quickly told, with sparse detail and little reflection, interspersed with some wonderful old photographs of people she met along the way. The book is more album than memoir. Perhaps it is a characteristic of her generation not to be introspective, not to dwell on hardships, not to elaborate on the political contexts she found herself in, nor to focus on her own courage and perseverance. As she says at the end, “This book represents only a few stories of my interesting and rich life that are meant to give a view of a world that no longer exists.” If there is any disappointment in this slight volume, it is the feeling that there is much more to know and experience through the eyes of this remarkable woman.

    Kathleen Coskran’s short fiction and articles have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. Her collection of short stories, The High Price of Everything, won a Minnesota Book Award as did Tanzania on Tuesday: Writing by American Women Abroad which she co-edited. She is the recipient of numerous artists' fellowships and residencies including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Bush Artist's Fellowship, and two grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband, Chuck, and is working on a novel.