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American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corpsby Philip Weiss
"American Taboo is a spectacular debut by a writer who must be applauded for his clarity and fairness, the lean elegance of his narrative untainted by cynicism or the indiscretion of agendas. Unlike the individuals in the South Pacific and Washington who brought shame and dishonor to the noble service of almost a quarter of a million Peace Corps volunteers and staff for more than 40 years, Philip Weiss is a great American, a true patriot who lives and breathes and writes in the sunlight of a moral universe." Bob Shacochis, Salon.com (read the entire Salon.com review)
Synopses & Reviews
TABOO (n) [Tongan tabu]
In 1975, thirty-three Peace Corps volunteers landed in the island nation of Tonga. It was an exotic place — men wearing grass skirts, coconut-thatched huts, pigs wandering the crushed-coral streets — governed by strange and exacting rules of conduct. The idealistic young Americans called it never-never land, as if it existed in a world apart from the one they knew and the things that happened there would be undone when they went home.
Among them was a beautiful twenty-three-year-old woman who, like so many volunteers before her, was in search of adventure. Sensuous and free-spirited, Deborah Gardner would become an object of desire, even obsession, in the small expatriate community. On the night of October 14, 1976, she was found dying inside her hut, stabbed twenty-two times.
Hours later, another volunteer turned himself in to the Tongan police, and many of the other Americans were sure he had committed the crime. But with the aid of the State Department, he returned to New York a free man, flown home at the Peace Corps's expense. Deb Gardner's death and the outlandish aftermath took on legendary proportions in Tonga; in the United States, government officials made sure the story was suppressed.
Now Philip Weiss unravels the truth about what happened in Tonga more than a quarter century ago. With bravura reporting and vivid, novelistic prose, Weiss transforms a Polynesian legend into a singular artifact of American history and a profoundly moving human story.
"In this compelling and disturbing exposé, veteran journalist Weiss details a decades-old travesty of justice stemming from the brutal murder of a young Peace Corps volunteer. Moving seamlessly between the events of the 1970s and his recent inquiries, Weiss brings back to life Deborah Gardner, an idealistic Northwesterner who traveled to the obscure South Pacific kingdom of Tonga to serve as a science teacher. Gardner rapidly acquired a slew of suitors, both welcome and unwelcome; one of the latter in particular, Dennis Priven, couldn't get the message that his attentions were unwanted. Despite numerous warning signs that Priven was a ticking time bomb, the local Peace Corps director ignored the problem, and one night Priven surprised Gardner in her home and brutally stabbed her more than 20 times. Though the murderer was identified by eyewitnesses and made numerous incriminating remarks, the Peace Corps chose to intervene with the local authorities and vigorously support his defense at trial (in which Priven was found not guilty be reasoning of insanity). Its outcome and aftermath, by this account, only compounded the Peace Corps' monumental failures of judgment. Readers of works on the Bonnie Garland case will find the relegation of the victim to the background and the protective shield thrown up by a supposedly moral community around an unrepentant killer familiar, but even novice true crime readers will find this a gripping and deeply sad story that will do little to bolster faith in the U.S. government's ethical priorities. Agent, Joy Harris. 3-city author tour. (June 1)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"This meticulously deconstructed tale of a Peace Corps volunteer murdering another in Tonga and basically getting away with it has to be one of the most exotic true-crime books of recent years, and one of the saddest." The Washington Post
"[P]rofoundly disturbing. Weiss writes in novelistic, literary, journalism style but includes references to back up his every assertion. Gripping reading." Booklist
"[A] fascinating diorama of life in the Peace Corps in the 1970's, on the edge of the world, four flights and 7,000 miles from home." The New York Times
Twenty-five years after a young Peace Corps volunteer was murdered and her killer set free, Weiss unravels the truth behind what happened on the South Pacific island and why the government suppressed the case.
About the Author
Philip Weiss has been a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a contributing editor to Esquire, Harper's Magazine, and the New York Observer. He lives in upstate New York.
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