"A nearly perfect book about the sweet pleasure of friendship. Reading [Dear Exile] is like spending time with a smart, affectionate, perceptive, effortlessly funny companion....The letters [are] like an uninterrupted conversation that never loses its harmony, with longing and affection and that quick, beautifully calibrated code in which best friends speak." San Francisco Chronicle
"Elegantly written, this correspondence reads like miniature essays on subjects as diverse as loneliness, clementines, the joy (and pain) of cybersex, and how to behave while one's concrete hut is being exorcised. Above all, this book affirms the power of friendship as expressed in the nearly lost art of letter writing." Kirkus Reviews
Hilary Liftin grew up in Washington, DC. In 1991 she graduated from Yale University, where she was the editor of the Yale Literary Magazine. She has worked in book publishing as an associate editor of nonfiction and literary fiction and as an editor/producer at several websites. She currently develops online products for Muze, a provider of digital information about music, videos and books, in New York City.
Kate Montgomery was raised in Wakefield, Rhode Island. She studied at Yale and Columbia Universiities, and has spent time teaching in both Czechoslovakia and Kenya. Kate has previously co-authored a non-fiction book A Teacher's Guide to Standardized Reading Tests. She is currently on leave from her job as a high school English teacher in Harlem to raise, with her husband David Hackenburg, their new son, Kobi.
1. In Dear Exile
, Kate's and Hilary's stories unfold in their letters to
one another. How does the immediacy of letters, in contrast to a straight
narrative, affect your experience as a reader? Did you empathize with one woman
more than the other? Did your feelings change during the course of the book?
2. Hilary says she "was afraid that Kate would disappear into married life, and
she actually did disappear, almost right away . . . when the newlyweds joined the
Peace Corps and went to Kenya" [p. 5]. Is Hilary only concerned about the
physical separation? Are her fears about losing Kate realized to any extent, or
do the friends maintain the closeness they enjoyed before Kate married? Would
their relationship have been different if Hilary had not been so fond of Dave?
3. During her first weeks in Kenya, Kate writes, "I'm beginning to feel
generally disoriented" [p. 16]. Are Kate's feelings an inevitable reaction to
being in a foreign environment? How do the perceptions of the local people affect
her perception of herself? In response, Hilary writes about her new job, saying,
"So right now I hardly recognize myself" [p. 18]. Is Hilary's feeling of
disorientation as understandable as Kate's?
4. Hilary feels like a guest in her father's house, admitting, "I would never
feel the need to be so cautious and polite and adult if I were staying with my
mother" [p. 20]. Kate is taken under the wings of older women in the villages she
and Dave live in during their stay in Kenya. Discuss the role that bonds between
women play in Dear Exile, comparing and contrasting their importance in Kenyan
culture and American culture. In what ways are the lives of women in Kenya
similar to the lives of women in America?
5. Except for Dave's short notes at the end of Kate's letters, the men in Dear
Exile are seen only through the eyes of two women. What are your impressions of
the men Hilary discusses in her letters: her close friend, Josh Stack; her
brother, Steven; Jason, her old boyfriend; and William Strong, the doctor she
falls in love with? How do Hilary's romantic notions influence her reactions to
6. When she arrives in Ramisi, Kate writes, "For the time being, Kenya has
totally kicked both of our butts" [p. 40]. What adjustments--both practical and
psychological--help her feel more at home? What does she mean when she says "my
feeling of independence is really not from deprivation but actually from
privilege and wealth. I can feel lighter, relieved of the load of a life of
luxury" [p. 45]?
7. In several letters, Hilary makes wry observations about the differences
between her life as a single woman [p. 52] and the lives of couples [p. 64]. In
your opinion, do her assessments reflect only her personal experiences or are
they valid in a more universal sense? To what extent do they stem from her
admiration and even envy for Kate's and her brother's marriages?
8. Kate is very unsettled by the atmosphere in Kenyan schools--from the rigid
style of teaching to the acceptance of harsh physical punishment. Are Kate's
expectations about what she can accomplish as a Peace Corps teacher unrealistic?
Is her idealism a privilege that only can be enjoyed by well-educated,
"comfortable" people? Do you think her unwillingness to accept local standards of
behavior is right or wrong? How do you feel about her statement that "it's all
about what a person is raised to believe, it could all be called culture, but I
wasn't raised to believe this, and I can't be open-minded about it" [p. 73]?
9. When the Peace Corps reports that the drinking water in Ramisi is unfit for
human consumption, only Kate and Dave take the news seriously. Kate says, "It's
tricky to be telling people that their ways aren't good enough. I don't know if
they don't want to hear it from us whites, if they don't want to contest 'God's
will,' or if they just don't care" [p. 69]. Do Kate and Dave--and Peace Corps
volunteers in general--have an obligation to teach basic rules of sanitation
which would lessen the incidence of disease and death despite the resistance of
the local people?
10. Hilary worries that she is caving in to the standards of American office and
beauty cultures. Is renouncing the promises she made in college--"never to wear
panty hose or painful shoes, never to have manicures . . . or pay more than
twenty dollars for a haircut or carry a purse" [p. 78]--a necessary part of
becoming a "grown-up"? Do these outward signs of change mean that she is being
untrue to herself?
11. What was your reaction to Hilary's sexual adventures in cyberspace? Do
you think she should have continued the virtual affair once she discovered that
she knew her chat-room lover? Do you think they should have pursued their
relationship in real life?
12. At Kwale High, the second village school Kate and Dave are sent to,
conditions are just as bad as the conditions in Ramisi schools. Have Kate's
attitudes about the canings and verbal assaults--integral parts of African
education--changed in any way during her nine months in Kenya? Do you think that
her fellow teachers' image of "American schools full of weapons, violence, and
disrespect for authority" [p. 119] justifies their dismissal of Kate's teaching
style? How would you respond to their claims that treating children severely in
school is a natural, necessary extension of the traditions set at home?
13. Kate and Dave meet a volunteer who has thoroughly assimilated to the Kenyan
way of life [p. 120]. Is his approach to living in a foreign country more
appropriate than Kate's and Dave's? Is his willingness to embrace the negative
aspects of the culture morally reprehensible?
14. Kate compares the exorcism in Kwale to the Salem witch trials, yet the witch
doctor's rituals do cure the "curse" on the young girls. How do you explain the
success of these ancient rites? How would similar problems with adolescent girls
be treated in this country?
15. What do Hilary's weird neighbors--the woman upstairs who moves furniture in
the middle of the night and the man downstairs who screams frightening
threats--as well as some of her less successful dates, represent in the context
of the book? What insights do Hilary's reactions to them reveal about her ability
to cope with the real world? Do you sympathize with Hilary's fears and
uncertainties, or do they seem trivial in comparison to Kate's? Why yes or no?
16. Kate remains on the sidelines as the tensions at school mount and eventually
escalate into violence. Should she have taken a more active role--either in
dealing with the "powers that be" or with the students themselves? As part of the
community, was it really possible for her to be an "innocent bystander"?
17. Kate and Dave decide to leave Kenya because they don't have the spirit and
energy to move to another village. Do you think they could have adapted by
drawing lessons from their experiences and developing new attitudes? What
experiences have you had with culture clashes? Discuss how--and if--it is
possible to adjust to another culture without betraying personal values.
18. Dear Exile ends with a postscript and an epilogue by the letter
writers. How do these finishing touches enhance the impressions you formed of
each woman through their letters? Which woman changed more during their year
19. Do you think the intimacy Kate and Hilary developed as correspondents will be
sustained now that they live in the same city? Does writing letters offer
opportunities for introspection and honesty that can't be matched in telephone
conversations and face-to-face encounters?