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When I Was Elena

by

When I Was Elena Cover

ISBN13: 9781579621247
ISBN10: 1579621244
All Product Details

 

Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments:

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.

Review:

"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.)

Review:

"[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

Review:

"Rich in detail and character, this memoir will have great appeal for anyone interested in Guatemala or in volunteer work." Booklist

Review:

"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

Review:

"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

Review:

"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

Review:

"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

Review:

"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.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 2 comments:

rebgak, January 1, 2010 (view all comments by rebgak)
Amazingly written story. An in depth look at the lives of five very different women woven into a brave true story.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No
meridith oram, November 16, 2008 (view all comments by meridith oram)
"Thank you so much for your book! I lived in Guatemala from 2002-2004 but my experience mirrors yours from 10 years earlier. Somehow, gracias a Dios, I was one of the 1-2% that did not have anything happen to me, though I witnessed the full gamut of crimes from slashed bags to rapes amongst my friends. Living in fear and just waiting for something to inevitably happen to me was truly debilitating. I think I often felt guilty for being one of the few who just imagined the atrocities but didn't have to live them in the flesh.
Just as with your experience, many volunteers didn't complete their two years in Guatemala while I was there. When I arrived there, I thought everyone would stay. I did not realize that leaving was even an option and I hadn't a clue about the safety issues we would have to deal with. My project began with 21 volunteers on the first day of training and we finished with 8 at our COS conference! Seven women and one man!
Again, thank you so much for your book. You have put into words so many of the things that I experienced in Guatemala--good and bad. It has been my experience that people are impressed by the Peace Corps but aren't always that interested in hearing about it. (I could talk for hours and hours about the people and my time there.) However, telling your story in a memoir is a beautiful way to do it. I truly love how you told the story from your point of view and then from that of the other women. You captured their ways of thinking and cultural beliefs so well. By telling their stories in the first person, you give them a voice and provide the reader with an insight into the culture that would be difficult to do in your own voice. Thank you for that. It reminds me that I need to contact my female friends in Guatemala. Your book has reawakened me to my own time in Guatemala that has been squashed a bit by life here in the states. My soul has been hurting a bit for Guatemala and my memories of being there and you have helped me to reconnect with that part of myself that is so key to who I am now."

-- Meridith Oram



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Product Details

ISBN:
9781579621247
Publisher:
Permanent Press (NY)
Subject:
Teachers
Author:
Hiltebrand, Ellen Urbani
Subject:
Americans
Subject:
Personal Memoirs
Publication Date:
March 2006
Binding:
Hardcover
Language:
English
Pages:
304
Dimensions:
8.64x6.42x1.09 in. 1.17 lbs.

Related Subjects

Biography » General
History and Social Science » Latin America » Guatemala
History and Social Science » World History » Central America
History and Social Science » World History » Latin America

When I Was Elena
0 stars - 0 reviews
$ In Stock
Product details 304 pages Permanent Press (NY) - English 9781579621247 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "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.)
"Review" by , "[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."
"Review" by , "Rich in detail and character, this memoir will have great appeal for anyone interested in Guatemala or in volunteer work."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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."
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