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The Road Builder by Nicholas Hershenow BlueHen/Putnam, 2001, 520 pp., $25.99 Though Nicholas Hershenow's The Road Builder tackles huge themes— corporate coloniaUsm, racism, paternalism , greed, despair and hope—it stays resolutely focused on the story of two footloose lovers, Will and Kate, and Kate's extremely eccentric (and possibly crazy) Uncle Pers. The result is a novel that is at once profound and a good read. Pers is dying, and he calls Kate to his hültop home in CaUfomia to help him complete a memoir of his globetrotting career. Will tags along. They find Pers' memoir largely finished, but there's a hole in the middle: Pers claims to have no memory of the years he spent in Central Africa. In a dazzling manipulation, he convinces Will and Kate to go to Central Africa to fill in the blank spot in his life. Everything is arranged: there's a job waiting for Will as a consultant at a palm oü factory in the KivUa Valley. While Will writes an exhaustive report on ways to improve oU production , Kate plans to finish her dissertation and research Pers' memoir . When they arrive, the Chef de Poste doesn't mind having them around, though he makes sure WuI and Kate know their place by putting them in a ramshackle house just down the hül from the pristine (and unoccupied) guest house, a holdover from colonial times. In some ways, WUl is himseU a holdover. As the months pass, and he and Kate get to know their neighbors in the Kivila VaUey, WiU is at times infuriated by the Africans' seeming acceptance of their lot in Ufe. A setfstyled "noble bureaucrat," WuI at one point decides to better theU lot by subsidizing the salaries at the factory with his own money. The Chef de Poste is also a holdover of sorts, waxing nostalgic about the infrastructure, if not the poUtical structure, of colonial rule. This tension is one of the great strengths of the book. Hershenow resists the temptation to create stock "noble" characters. Instead, he tells a genuine, U sometimes uncomfortable, story: the white do-gooder's charity is infused with an unwitting racism; the African can be fiercely proud of his country's independence whUe fondly recalling a time when the roads were good. People are compUcated and contradictory , and Hershenow explores these layers with sensitivity and without condemnation. Though WiU's attitude toward the residents of the Kivila VaUey may be patronizing, Hershenow's is not. Even in our ostensibly enlightened time, portrayals of non-Western people often tend toward caricature. The African characters In The Road Builder—the inscrutable nightwatchman Placide, the proud but practical Chef de Poste, the aUuring and powerfuUy inteUigent Nurse, the linguistic genius Ndosi—are exceptional for being just that, characters. They have individual personalities, talents, quirks and aspirations, while bearing many of the same burdens: fear of exploitation by men with guns, fear of death by disease or starvation and the unending taunt of living close enough to Western culture to comprehend its wealth but too far away to share in it. The Missouri Review · 207 When Kate begins disappearing for whole nights, arriving home exhausted and filthy at sunrise, when WUTs subsidies fail to increase production at the plant and his report on oil production elicits an angry visit from the home office, the world WiU has constructed, in which he is the noble bureaucrat and the Africans are passive and complacent, is exposed as myth. EventuaUy the locals discover WiU and Kate's connection to Pers (who local lore remembers as the Road Builder); then the truth about Pers arrives in the person of a mysterious American named Boris. As soldiers approach from the cast, WUTs friends in the Kivila vaUey show him in dramatic fashion that they're not passive; they're survivors. "Epic" is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days, but rarely do the works purported to be epics fulfill the promise of the genre: to portray great human themes through the lives of individual characters . The Road Builder, finally, is a book about WiU, Kate and Pers, Placide, the Chef de...


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pp. 207-208
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