IN 1976, A BEAUTIFUL YOUNG Peace Corps Volunteer in Tonga was brutally murdered, stabbed 22 times, apparently by someone in a jealous rage.
Another Peace Corps Volunteer turned himself in to the Tongan police hours later.
How the story was suppressed, and the murderer walked away free was the subject of American Taboo, a gripping nonfiction narrative by Philip Weiss written nearly three decades later.
A few weeks before the murder, Jan Worth arrived in Tonga with a new Peace Corps group. She was shaken to the core by this horrible crime.
Now Worth has come forth with Night Blind, her own story of those years, living in the ghostly shadow of the young woman whose life ended so violently. This work of fiction is not the murder victim’s story, although the murder and subsequent trial play an important part in the narrative. Names have been changed, and events are told from the point of view of Worth’s heroine, Charlotte.
Charlotte and the other Volunteers in Tonga try to cope with the facts of the murder itself, and with the loss they feel, the reactions of their Tongan colleagues, and their own confusion, which only increases as the trial wears on.
It seems their government cares more about the murderer than about the victim, and more about controlling news coverage of the crime than about the crime itself. Charlotte and the other Volunteers, troubled and shaken, receive very little help in dealing with these issues.
All this occurs while the young Volunteers are exploring their own views of the world, their own sexuality, and their own values.
Charlotte is a minister’s daughter, so proud of her growing list of sexual partners that she keeps a list of their names. One of them says, “I still say you’re the best lay in Peace Corps,” and she replies, “What an honor, and please keep that delightful secret between us.”
Charlotte has other qualities besides being “easy” she’s articulate, funny and self-deprecating. She’s friendly and warmhearted. She’s a good pal to have around.
It’s not easy to be a sexually liberated foreigner in an island community with its own strict sense of standards, murder or no murder, and Charlotte explores the various complications of her own behavior, while seeing parallels between herself and the fun-loving murder victim.
Yet for all of Charlotte’s experience with various men, she’s never had an orgasm with one of them, until she takes as her lover Gabriel Bonner, who’s been brought to Tonga by the U.S. government to be a witness in the trial. Bonner, a psychologist, has come to testify as to the legal sanity of the defendant.
This man manages not only to obfuscate the jurors’ perceptions about the murderer’s state of mind, he plays with Charlotte’s mind (and body) in a number of ways as well.
In her determination to move out from under the constraints of her churchy childhood, Charlotte makes a refreshingly nonjudgmental first-person narrator. Her story is compelling and her observations are witty and perceptive, although she does not touch upon the possibility that her own promiscuity might be as devastating to a sexual partner as Bonner’s turns out to be.
Charlotte is a celebrant of life. She wants to be happy. She’s a party girl and a jokester, trying to have fun, taking things as they come. But events beyond her control demand more from her than she may ever have intended. Whether she learns from them is unclear. She survives them. She mulls them over, and appreciates being alive.
Fact or fiction or a mixture of both, this is a very readable book.
Jan Worth, a writing teacher at the University of Michigan/Flint, is a poet, essayist and fiction writer, and has also been a newspaper reporter and social worker. Her work has appeared widely, including in Blaze, Contemporary Michigan Poetry, Controlled Burn, Detroit Free Press, Los Angeles Times and Marlboro Review.
Sharon Dirlam, a former staff writer and book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, is the author of Beyond Siberia: Two Years in a Forgotten Place, a nonfiction narrative about her Peace Corps service, and two stories published in the best-selling anthology, Travelers’ Tales: A Woman’s World.