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Book Review: Overland: Remembering Southeast Asia

Overland: Remembering Southeast Asia. Caryn Green. Glenview, IL: Manitou and Cedar Press, March 2, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 247 pages.

Reviewed by Lisa Lickel.

“You’re not really American till you leave home,” one of the author’s traveling partners says on a stop in Malaysia.

In a story that begins when the author reminisces over found, 40-year-old international mail and photos, Caryn Green recounts part of a life-changing journey to Southeast Asia during 1975-76.

Green, an award-winning essayist and journalist who has covered topics such as travel, lifestyle, history, religion, arts, and the environment for various media, took on her first book-length work with her memoir, Overland.

After losing a promotion at work, Green writes, at her first career job out of college during the tumultuous mid-1970s, she took time off for a journey of self-discovery. Overland: Remembering Southeast Asia is part travelogue, part time capsule, part confession. “Time off” is a euphemism for quitting her job, emptying her savings, and getting on a plane without her usual exhausting tendency to master every detail. Her guitar and music went with her.

She traveled first to Japan to visit family friends, where unknown to her, a significant family event occurred. The reader learns of this tragedy when, months later, Caryn finds out through delayed mail. And that delayed land mail speaks to the era: a different time without the instantaneous communication of today. Back then, touring foreigners lusted after news from home, wherever that was, which could only be learned through the newest visitors, eagerly sought and befriended on sight.

As Green took the Overland, or Hippie Trail, starting in Bali in November 1975 and ending in Bangkok the next February, she grew stronger in self-reliance and self-respect. “What started as a quest for my identity became a lesson on how others saw me,” she shares. “I evolved . . . from child to adult. I guess we don’t realize we’re coming of age while it’s happening, it only occurs to us in retrospect.”

The Trail led through Bangkok, Burma, Java, Thailand, and at one point, into the jungle and civil war. She even met a Naga headhunter. “It was banned in 1962,” says one of her companions, “but no one’s really sure if it’s being enforced.” The headhunter didn’t induce as much fear as a later crazy marriage proposal.

Interspersed with commentary of “on the Trail” are tidbits from her home in Chicago nearly 40 years after the journey, as Green checks in from the future. She also makes several references to later revelations about people she met, which I thought worked well in her narrative. She became more comfortable sharing stories of her upbringing with her traveling companions, thus sharing her motivation for self-discovery in a natural manner. Using her musical gift was also a door-opener. The people she met along the way helped shift her perspectives in profound ways. Sometimes it was a simple complaint session on all the things they missed back home: democracy, lots of free stuff, clean public restrooms, and safe drinking fountains. Sometimes it was homesickness.

“The relationships are so accelerated,” Green writes. “On the road . . .our emotions are so intensified . . . Funny, when I first started traveling, all I noticed was how different everything seemed. Now I’m so much more struck by the similarities.”

Green returned to Southeast Asia to retrace her steps and “fill in blanks, facts, and connections that had eluded me.”

Overlandis a time-travelogue of two generations past, of a growing-up time during an era of crazy revolution in places where time stood poised and uneager to change. This is creative, narrative non-fiction as Green recreates conversations and scenarios from journals, photos, and letters. Green captures the importance of remembering the moments that shape us. Readers should also be prepared for raw situations of sex, language, and drug use. A thoughtful guide for discussion topics is included.


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