Have Gun, Will Travel

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Deb Olin Unferth’s ruefully funny memoir revisits the year she followed her boyfriend into the war zones of Latin America.

When Deb Olin Unferth allows her eccentric Christian boyfriend to shack up in her college dorm room, the administrators kick them out. George—the boyfriend—says not to worry. They’ll drop out of school, head down to Central America and join a revolution.

Unferth’s memoir, Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, is hilarious and painful, in large part because her eighteen-year-old self is super-glued to her boyfriend, George. Her fervor is not for revolution but for George, and the long season of her dependence puts her in line for some outlandish escapades.

It’s 1987 when they head down to Mexico and try to find a way to Cuba. But they don’t have much money and aren’t resourceful enough to find a way around the travel ban for U.S. citizens. Fortunately, there are lots of revolutions to choose from: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, Guatemala, Honduras. “Still,” writes Unferth, “it took George and me a while to find any.

We rode through Mexico on bus rides that lasted eighteen hours, twenty-two hours, twenty-six hours. We passed through Guatemala, where we had to fight our way through the tourists just to see a little scrap of the land. The tourists crowded together like shrubs, trying not to get knocked over.

They make it to El Salvador and find jobs at a religious-based orphanage, right in the middle of a war zone. That lasts only a couple weeks, until the Salvadoran in charge demands that Unferth wear a bra. She refuses, whining to the children, “Who says God says you have to wear a bra?”

Unferth’s voice is a unique blend of her eighteen-year old self and her older, wiser self who can look back at events, which most likely were terrifying at the time, with irony. Of Guatemalan soldiers, she writes, “They were small and young and cute, like toy soldiers. Many only came up to my mouth. They stood and looked at us in moody silence. Poked at the pages of my passport. Sometimes they would pose for a picture.” When George tells her San Salvador is under martial law, Unferth thinks he means, “Marshall Law,” somehow connected to the World War II and the Marshall Plan. The use of short chapters adds energy and snappiness—nothing is belabored or lingered over.

After being fired from the orphanage, Unferth and George take a bus to San Salvador. During the ride, George proposes marriage and Unferth accepts. They try to find a hostel but end up at a brothel; every time they step outside, they are stopped and questioned by soldiers. They while away their time playing Hangman in a notebook or trying to interview people about the revolution. But despite the rumors of mass killings, torture, and disappearings, what preoccupies Unferth, what causes her major concern, is whether she really should marry George.

When their visas run out, they move on to Nicaragua. Whereas El Salvador is still in siege mode, Managua is festive, “like a cheerful Communist kazoo concert.” Foreigners from Europe, Africa, all the Americas, called internacionalistas, are everywhere, clamoring to be part of the revolution.

You’d think in a more festive atmosphere, things would go well for George and Unferth. After all, “Joining the Sandinistas was like joining the Peace Corps, the Peace Corps with guns.” And finally they have something to do: go to the U.S. embassy and protest U.S. support of the Contras, or hang out and argue with the other internacionalistas at the Hotel Intercontinental. But as the months go by, they get sicker and sicker. They are fired from another job—building bikes, donated by China—and Unferth slowly begins to unglue herself from George.

When their Nicaraguan visas run out, they head to Costa Rica. It is here—with cooler air, better buses, and abundant food—that Unferth is moved to declare, with a mouth full of chocolate cake, “Capitalism is wonderful.”

Revolution is a ruefully funny memoir that surprises and delights at nearly every turn—through style, subject matter, and a chronological structure that hiccups with flashbacks and flash forwards. The memoir begins with George and Unferth at the end of their journey, crossing back into the United States, and sets the perfect pitch for what’s to follow: “I had food in my heart and mind that morning… I wanted to go to McDonald’s.”

Read The Rumpus Interview with Deb Olin Unferth, part of the Rumpus Original Combo.


Nina Schuyler’s novel, THE TRANSLATOR, was published July 1, 2013 by Pegasus Books. Her first novel, THE PAINTING, was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. More from this author →