Book review: Novel explores dusty, winding road

Fifth Parallel cover“The Fifth Parallel, A Love Story Set in Africa,” by Michelle Foltz, 282 pages, 2015, Amazon Books, $14.99.

The author is an orthopedic surgeon who with her husband lives near Columbus, Mont., but spends most of her time volunteering her skills in places like Afghanistan. She is also the author of “A Leg to Stand On” (about orthopedics) and co-editor of the textbook “Global Orthopedics: Caring for Musculoskeletal Conditions and Injuries in Austere Settings.

She says of “The Fifth Parallel,” her new work of fiction that “the events could have happened.”

I’m not so sure about the love story part, but this is an excellent book about the inherent ambiguities in Third World cultures that confront a young American Peace Corps volunteer trying to understand a new country.

For anyone who likes to understand geopolitics without having to read dry policy papers, this novel provides excellent analyses without the burden of pedantry. Most interestingly, it provides insight the American electorate badly needs as we elect a new president.

The “Fifth Parallel” is a road connecting Kisema, a small jungle village, and the capital of the fictitious West African country of Lubama. On the limited maps available, the road is straight east and west—part of the equatorial fifth latitude, a defined straightness that Peace Corps volunteer Miranda Frank finds comforting when dealing with the strangeness of her geographical assignment. By the time she is deported, she realizes the road to Kisema isn’t straight but twisted in many, many ways.

“The Fifth Parallel” is perhaps a coming-of-age story, except that 25 years later Frank still wanders in the ambiguous mist of that seminal time of her life—trying to understand what her experience meant and still wondering how to say thank you for the humanity provided by some of the friends she made there.

In the dry season the red dust is endless as the continual heat, permeating everything from food to hair. When the monsoon comes, it is voluminous, settling the dust and nurturing the rich smells of new growth that perfume Frank’s life—along with the hashish she and her friends share.

An aimless young man personifies the people of an unfortunate generation caught between the promises they thought would be fulfilled with independence and the poverty and lack of opportunity they are left with in reality.

Lacking any media, the news comes through the gossip of friends and neighbors. Hearing of executions mentioned cautiously in the twilight, her friend tells Frank, “Da men dat live in the bush come to da town, take certain govment men. Take only two. Plenty left. No you worry.” This nonchalance is reflected in the traditional Lubamaen greeting, “How da body?” the answer to which is, “Fine small. I fall down, I get up.”

Probably like most Peace Corps volunteers, Frank tries to keep her personal values and respect for life intact but struggles with the ambiguities she faces. As one valued mentor and close friend (a native medical doctor) counsels her, “No African is ever going to tell you exactly why he does what he does, and if one does, then don’t believe him.”

To Frank, candor was a corollary to being alive, but to the average Lubamean it was a deadly sin reflected in her friend’s admonition, “no one owes you an explanation.” As for her black-and-white values, her friend advises her, “Totalitarian government, religious sects, doctrines forged on the anvil of absolutes use that ploy. … You must learn to live with the ambiguity that separates these different worlds—the one you’d like to find and the one that is here. You must embrace ambiguity. You must expect that you will find it and in searching for it, you’ll learn how to live here without hatred and without thinking you are superior. Acceptance of the differences doesn’t mean you ignore the injustices. Accept what you find, learn from them, but follow your own moral bearings. If you can’t do that, then you will spend your time fighting a losing battle. Never doubt the humanity of another person just because he doesn’t agree with you or does something you find wrong.”

As for the still-lingering meanings in the mist, Frank says, “I believe it can only be tallied in a cyclic accounting: you give to the next generation. You pass on your wisdom and strength and friendship, knowing those are the only things worth giving.”

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