Sunday, August 23, 2009

Review: Lucy Shook's Letters from Afghanistan

Lucy Shook’s Letters from Afghanistan, edited by Shook’s daughter Liz Adair and granddaughters Ruth Lavine and Terry Gifford, is an amazing chronicle of an American woman’s view of Afghanistan from 1965 to 1970. Serving with the United States’ Agency for International Development, Lucy’s husband, Jim, works in agricultural development while Lucy oversees their life in an Islamic country she describes as "2,000 years behind the times."

Shook soon finds that running a home staffed with servants isn’t fully utilizing her capabilities and she takes on the responsibility of a Staff House, a respite for visitors. Along the way, she becomes involved in the lives of those who work for her. She endears herself to these hard-working people of grinding poverty, people who are capable of such love and dedication that she is often moved to tears.

In the course of business or pleasure, the Shooks travel throughout Afghanistan, taking the reader along on camel rides, desert markets, and the oddities of doing business in a third-world country.

Shook successfully manages both her home and the Staff House and becomes known as an expert hostess. Indeed, she frequently manages two or three events in a day, often honoring dignitaries with 150 or 200 guests in attendance.

During their tenure in Afghanistan, Lucy suffered a severely broken leg and several environmental illnesses; Jim recovered from a heart attack and also had sundry illnesses. But they forged on, bolstered by their strong Mormon faith, relying on the love for family, and gathering strength from letters from home.

Shook’s letters to her children reveal great compassion for life and for doing her very best with materials at hand, all with honesty and openness to her own short-comings. Her witty and loving approach to her fellow man endears her not only to those she served, but to her readers as well.

On a personal note, as a former Peace Corps volunteer (1979-1981, The Gambia, West Africa), I appreciated her involvement with the Afghanistan volunteers. Living at the other end of the spectrum, Peace Corps volunteers don’t usually have much in the way of luxuries such as air conditioning, a balanced diet, even opportunities to carry on a conversation in English. Being invited to the Staff House must have seemed like heaven on earth to those volunteers.

Afghanistan has now become a household name, yet I doubt if the people have changed that much since the Shooks lived among them. I highly recommend this book for a look at a country few of us understand; at a people fierce, yet loyal to a degree we seldom see in America. Books can be ordered through Liz Adair’s website is


Liz said...

Thanks for the posting, Mary. Well written, and captures the essence of the book, I think.

You have a great-looking blog! I'll become a follower.

Heidiwriter said...

Wow, fascinating! I can't wait to read it. I'm in the middle of "Counting the Cost" now and enjoying it very much!


Page Lambert said...

Mary, thanks for bringing attention to Liz Adair's book - there was a great section recently in the NY Times about women in the middle east and how micro-loans are helping them to gain independence and respect among the male population. Liz's take on things is, no doubt, enlightening.

Eunice Boeve said...

Mary, Sounds like a very interesting book. I will add it to my list of "want to read." I wish I could speed read. Have you read A Thousand Splendid Suns? Set in Afghanistan, it is soooo good.