Deb Baker's The Mindful Reader: Teacher inspires sojourn 
of service

By DEB BAKER
The Mindful Reader
February 14. 2015 6:21PM

I
n the acknowledgements of his book “Wide-Open World: How Volunteering Around the Globe Changed One Family’s Lives Forever,” John Marshall thanks his ninth-grade English teacher at Manchester High School Central, Mrs. Singer, in whose class he says “a whole new world opened up for me” which led to his becoming a writer.

We can all be grateful to Mrs. Singer, because Marshall’s memoir is an interesting, inspiring read.

Marshall, his wife Traca, and kids Logan and Jackson, took a six-month-long volunteering trip to Costa Rica, New Zealand, Thailand and India. They volunteered on nature preserves, organic farms, in schools and at an orphanage. His book tells of their experiences in a very open-hearted, honest way. It’s not just a travelogue, but a meditation on parenting and marriage, on learning to be yourself, on living intentionally in a world where it’s much easier and more comfortable to just set yourself on autopilot.

The anecdotes about where they traveled, how they lived, who they met, and what they did are notable and often moving, but it’s the way Marshall describes his hopes for his family and his life that is most compelling. I’ve read a handful of other books about taking a break from normal life to travel or make a difference. “Wide Open World” is distinct because Marshall is not working to impress readers with his own goodness or bravery or strength. Instead, he is quick to point out what he misses or misunderstands and what he learns from the people he encounters.

Much of what the Marshall family set out to do was work they hadn’t done before — teaching English in a rural Thai school, for example, or working with orphans. But they found out that simply being present in the world was their greatest contribution. As the deputy director of the Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission in India told him, all they needed to do was “Just love the kids.” Marshall writes, “It is perhaps the greatest power we all have. We can’t control the results or guarantee the reaction we’ll get. But we can show up and we can try. Even if we’re nervous. Even if we feel unqualified.”

Show up. Try. Those are simple words, but they seem to me to be profound advice whether you are destined to sit in an armchair and read about adventurous volunteers like Marshall, or plan to embark on some kind of service trip yourself. If you do want to venture into the world of volunteer travel, read this book first, to get a clear-eyed view of some of the challenges as well as the potential joys. Marshall includes an epilogue with planning advice, and his website, johnmarshall.com, is full of photos and information about the trip and what he’s done since.

Another New Hampshire native, Kenneth Butler, studied film in college and his satirical novel “Holy Fool” seemed to me at times more suited to a script. As a film or television show, “Holy Fool” would probably be hilarious as it cut from scene to scene. He skewers wealth, environmentalists, Catholic religious orders, young people, middle-aged people, rural people — it’s hard to find any character who escapes his sardonic wit.

Some characters have such fleeting appearances the reader finds it hard to recall where they fit in. And while I understand satire is meant to ridicule, “Holy Fool” occasionally veered into the ridiculous. So, why did I keep reading? The heart of the story is compelling. George St. Hilaire is a wealthy factory owner who wakes up from a coma after a car accident having had a profound experience of the divine.

George decides to devote his life to God. His wife, Sissy, who spends most of her time drinking, sleeping around, and lamenting her own and her kids’ behavior, suddenly remembers she cares about George, and/or that she doesn’t. The local priest sees George’s faith as further indictment of his own doubt. Various conniving people want to control George’s business.

“Holy Fool,” in other words, is about the human condition — who are we and what are we doing here? What are we to believe? How should we act? And why does society entice us to act otherwise? Butler is on to something with these themes , and he also creates some vivid images, although the writing sometimes tells more than it shows.

Welcome longtime and new readers alike! When I began reviewing for newspapers, I chose to call the column The Mindful Reader because my goal is not only to cover books by New Hampshire and northern New England authors, but also to keep in mind what readers might want to hear about — books that aren’t getting widespread media attention and books on topics that resonate with what’s happening in New Hampshire.

Deb Baker is a writer and insatiable reader. She’s adult services manager at Concord Public Library and blogs about books at bookconscious.wordpress.com and the library world at thenocturnallibrarian.com, and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. The opinions expressed in The Mindful Reader column are her own and not those of her employer.

You can find Deb on Twitter at @bookconscious or @NoctLibrarian, and reach her at mindfulreader@yahoo.com.


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