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When I Was Elenaby Ellen Urbani Hiltebrand
Synopses & Reviews
When I Was Elena is an extraordinary account of a young American woman's sojourn in the guerrilla-infested mountains of Guatemala. Shattering the concept of a typical memoir, the author's personal story is interlaced, chapter-for-chapter, with tales told from the perspectives of seven indigenous women she encountered during her journey. At once a coming-of-age adventure and a haunting history of the struggle to overcome oppression — both personal and cultural — this genre-breaching work heralds the arrival of a daring new talent in American literature.
At age 22, Ellen Urbani Hiltebrand left behind a classic Middle America upbringing, moving from a Southern sorority house into a scorpion-infested mud hut in order to live, work, and immerse herself in the culture of Guatemala's poorest villagers. There she encountered seven local women — among them the wife of a political martyr, a twelve-year-old incest victim, and an escapee from house arrest — whose experiences unexpectedly illuminated her own. Told with unflinching honesty, disarming humor, and an astonishing ear for dialect, this is a work of such atmospheric accuracy that the scent of fire-roasted tortillas virtually wafts from the pages as this tiny country — and the women who occupy it — bursts to life.
A paean to friendship and the resilience it lends to the human spirit, When I Was Elena joins a host of disparate voices into a composite of masterful storytelling. It echoes as a work of singular achievement.
"In 1991, Hiltebrand, then 22, jettisoned her Southern belle sorority life for two years in rural Guatemala, armed with her dog, fluency in Spanish and a well-grounded blend of will and pluck ('National Geographic lied,' she declares upon arrival). In the country's crushing poverty and rampant hazards, along with the worshipful envy Hiltebrand elicits as a 'gringa,' the author finds an unexpected lode of humor that she mines to impressive effect, gently but not jeeringly. She records events with unflinching precision, leavened with an amiable sense of the absurd — as when a crone blithely steals Hiltebrand's mattress, which is imbued with new value by a white woman's touch. Even the kindness extended to her is riddled with poignant irony, as a neighbor slaughters her chickens to feed the author's ailing dog. The country's more menacing figures — lewd men, including a would-be rapist — are introduced without histrionics, as products of a culture viewed with clear-eyed, anthropological interest. Hiltebrand's travelogue is intercut with the quietly powerful life stories of the native women she befriends, and the tectonic shifts in perspective create a rich mosaic of culture and character. Though in spots Hiltebrand's prose feels thickly applied, her animated voice reliably shines through." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"[Hiltebrand] is an honest observer and her voice is convincing. Her mixed feelings of love and anger at the country are clearly conveyed. High school readers will be fascinated by this window into a different world." School Library Journal
"Rich in detail and character, this memoir will have great appeal for anyone interested in Guatemala or in volunteer work." Booklist
"When I Was Elena is a powerful and passionate memoir by a gutsy stranger in a troubled land....This is a very rich and disturbing tapestry that I hope will make you think about life outside of our privileged bailiwick where most of the planet's citizens live." John Nichols, author of The Milagro Beanfield War
"I had to wipe the tears from my eyes after finishing this wonderful story of war and peace....Her presentation of the Guatemalans histories and beliefs was incredible." Pam White, Skyland Books
"Women's stories so need to be shared, particularly women's hero stories. Ellen...gives women the notion to take flight. She is a brave and gifted writer with a grand story to tell." Susan Chernak McElroy, author of All My Relations
"A shattering, moving story of her two-and-a-half-year stint in the Peace Corps in Guatemala. Thinking of joining up?....First read this stunning, unforgettable book." The Independent
"Hiltebrand does something amazing here: she takes risks in her writing that are even more impressive than her actual journey. She possesses a magical empathy." Francisco Goldman, author of The Long Night of White Chickens
About the Author
Ellen Urbani Hiltebrand was born into a raucous family of Irish and Italian immigrants in Philadelphia. Always open to new experiences, she transformed herself at the University of Alabama into the epitome of a Southern belle. After college, she ventured to Guatemala as a Peace Corps Volunteer, where she spent the early 1990s post-civil war years teaching in the guerrilla-controlled mountains, the setting for her memoir When I Was Elena.
She returned to the United States penniless, with tuberculosis, and married to a fellow Volunteer. They camped on the bank of an Oregon river while Ellen awaited graduate school admission; she received her MA in Art Therapy. Her work designing arts programs to assist cancer patients in coming to terms with illness and death was the subject of an Oscar-qualified documentary in 2000, titled Paint Me A Future. She now resides in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two children.
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