Book Review: Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit

M4 Version 5Attempts to fictionalize humanitarian work have managed to fail on the level of garnering public interest and on the accuracy of living as an expat aid worker.

The Grey’s Anatomy-goes-to-South-America failure better known as Off the Map lasted all of 13 episodes. The few aid workers that tuned in gleefully tweeted criticisms of the melodramatic plot and portrayal of aid work.

Anonymous aid worker J emerges as a person with long humanitarian experience using fiction to capture the frustrations and politics that make up aid work while telling a gripping story.

Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit picks up with aid worker heroine Mary-Anne who left Haiti behind for her next assignment at the Dolo Ado refugee camp in Ethiopia. Her partner, Jean-Philippe, the object of her torrid affair in Haiti which drove the plot for the prior Disastrous Passion, is traveling around East Africa on a separate assignment.

The pair that fell so deeply in love in Haiti are under stress due to the physical distance and the pressures of the work on their lives. An experienced and older Oxfam aid worker named Jon Langstrom joins the cast as the new leading man and the potential love interest for Mary-Anne who finds herself pulled to this man who seemingly has his life together.

J’s previous life was spent as a popular aid blogger at Tales From the Hood. In the year and a half since J hung up his blogging shoes, he launched a social media site for aid workers called Aid Source, co-produced the popular and irreverent Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like andwrote two humanitarian fiction novels.

The characters are the driving force behind the story. The young Mary-Anne must navigate her way through the new work while pining for her love. Jon’s life is unraveling thanks to a fractured marriage to a former aid worker who wants her husband to spend less time in the field and more time at home. He also must fend off Mark, a wealthy entrepreneur who wanted to give something back and now serves as COO of Oxfam.

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Fiction serves as a way for J to lay out his thoughts about aid as a humanitarian response and industry. An overview in J’s Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like links the book to Fifty Shades of Grey and the Twilight series. Teens and moms have their trashy fiction, where is it for aid workers?

While Mary-Anne is clearly the leading lady, she is the person who moves the plot along so the reader can get to more scenes with Jon. On the surface level, the story of a possible love triangle is similar to popular romance fiction.

A more accurate likening would be Atlas Shrugged. J stakes out his personal philosophy about aid. Jon provides the mouthpiece of sorts to inform the green Mary-Anne the truth about humanitarian work. It is a continuation of sorts from J’s blogging days. The style is similar in that words strike quick to the bone.

Descriptions of time and place are spared for plot and conversation. All of which converge on Billy-Bob’s, the bar where tired aid workers go to  pull on mediocre beers and transform to a “deployment smoker.” It is there that Jon and Mary-Anne huddle up to talk shop. Jon assumes the role of the professor and Mary-Anne the eager student who finds herself wanting to spend more time with him.

Unlike Rand, J does not indulge long winded speeches, nor does he try to create a heroic character that is beaten down by a broken system. The character of Jon is as imperfect as any other person.

“We all start out with these altruistic intentions. We’re going to save the world, or at least a little corner of it,” says Jon as the story reaches its peak and J lays bare his idea of the aid workers transition from missionary to mercenary to mystic to ultimately a misfit.

Seeing how aid works, the sausage making aspect of it as Jon puts it, breaks down the facade of idealism. The mercenary is the aid worker who sees the problematic system and bounces from project to project looking for the elusive solutions in a complex world of development.

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The pursuit of better aid is what leads to the class of mystics and misfits. The mystics move on to technical aspects of aid looking for incremental gains while the misfits keep looking and bouncing around the world.

The conversation comes at a time when Mary-Anne has completely cleared the missionary categorization and joined the rest of the mercenaries. Meanwhile, the more experienced mercenary Jon is pulled between the grand thoughts of an aid mystic and misfit on the precipice of losing everything.

Aid workers will like the book for its insider feel and revelations about the complexities that bog down aid work. They will appreciate the love stories that develop and the relationships between the other characters that are introduced throughout the story. Many will probably nod along at the end as Jon/J theorizes about aid work.

Outsiders will find it hard to access. Despite the quick pace and engaging story line, the book requires a knowledge of aid work to keep up with J’s writing. There is little in regards to describing the places the characters go and the people they meet. J relies on the readers existing knowledge and experiences to fill what is left out. Those with experience in refugee camps will easily drop the characters into situations that they likely already lived.

J’s style and writing is limited at parts due to the fact that it is self published.  Jon and Mary-Anne can take only so many ‘pulls’ from their beers before the reader wonders if there is any other way to consume beer. What could be better does not ultimately detract from the book in any significant way.

The end product is a quick and enjoyable read for aid workers and insiders. Fans of Disastrous Passion will not be disappointed and happier to know that J is not done writing humanitarian fiction.

Disclosure: I was provided an advanced copy of the novel for free. The review here is entirely my own opinion.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.

  • Terence

    Ayn Rand. Tom that’s pretty harsh! Although I’ve been amusing myself all day composing Rand-style speeches for the book:

    The first thing that struck Mary-Anne was how different he looked. The bar was the same – dreary, sandy, shabby – but Jonathan was turned out in crisp, tailored clothes. A collar. Shoes of distinction. He was drinking single malt. He looked animated, fervent, alive!

    “The goat’s dead. I shot it. Tonight you can call me John.”

    She went to speak but he waved her into silence.

    “You know what’s wrong with development…[insert 4 hour speech in here]…so you might say Easterly’s correct, but not correct enough! He’s soft…[two
    more hours and now we’re well past curfew]…A is A! And that is why M&E is for sissies!”

    At first she’d wanted to object (what about Robert Chambers? Gender Mainstreaming? Jeff Sachs?) but now all she could think about was growth models: endogenous; the big push; binding constraints – you name it. His truth was so savage. So objective. So true!

    She looked at the other men in the bar. Weary, worn, weak. Mediocre! She winced…she looked back into his eyes.

    ‘John, I’m yours!’

    • Ha! I did not mean it as a slight, but I saw the book more as an argument about aid shrouded in narrative fiction. So, it is much closer to Rand on the spectrum that spans pure entertainment.

      Though it may be fun to write an aid novel employing Rand’s style. Trouble is needing a heck of a lot of time to write so much.