Barnegat Light Man Holding Book Signings at Libraries

Jul 10, 2017

In the early 1960s, Alan Howard was a Fulbright Scholar at San Carlos University in Guatemala, where he tried to improve literacy in the war-torn Central American country. That experience was the inspiration for his first novel, In the Land of Eternal Spring, recently published by Harvard Square Editions. A Barnegat Light resident, Howard will be holding talks and book signings on Monday, July 17, at 7 p.m. at the Long Beach Island branch of the Ocean County Library and Wednesday, July 19, at 1 p.m. at the Beach Haven Public Library.

“Novels don’t often come overnight,” he said. “Sometimes it takes years. In my case, it’s been a work in progress for more than 50 years. At the libraries, I will be reading excerpts and tying in my own personal experiences.”

During those decades, Howard kept quite busy writing for a living. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Nation, Dissent, public television and labor publications about workers and politics in the United States and many other countries. He was an International Fellow at Columbia University, the Latin American correspondent for Liberation News Service, and a national volunteer leader in the 2008 and 2012 campaigns of Barack Obama. His novella Hollywood Furs was short-listed for the 2011 Paris Literary Prize.

In his novel, the main character - Peter Franklin - is a Fulbright Scholar living in Guatemala City in 1963, researching the Great National Literacy Campaign and working closely with the U.S. Embassy. At an embassy party he meets Laura Jenson, a Peace Corps volunteer living in a village outside the city. Her initial work with was cut short after a corrupt official made off with the funds, leaving her to work on launching a literacy program for locals. Peter and Laura slowly forge a relationship, and when Laura becomes involved with a growing revolutionary movement, Peter starts working with her. But quickly the state security forces become aware of their involvement, and the young couple become fugitives in a country they had once hoped to help through peaceful means.

Howard said that beginning in 1960, Guatemala was ravaged by civil wars for more than 35 years. He said an estimated 200,000 people lost their lives.

“The cause of this is a desperate type of poverty,” said Howard. “This is what happens when 20 families own about 90 percent of the available land.”

In 1966, he had stories published in the New York Times about the growing revolutionary movement in the making.

“I declined an offer from a big publisher to write a book on the subject, because, among other reasons, I wondered if such a story could not best be told in fiction,” he said.

And the Kirkus Review of Books gave Howard a thumbs up.

“Telling a story about Latin America through the eyes of U.S. citizens is a risky move, but it’s one the author pulls off well,” the publication said. “Capturing the sense of intellectual hope that resonated in the JFK years, the author has crafted a book that interrogates the place of Americans in the developing world and their capacity for helping solve problems created in large part by their own government’s policies. The novel is subtly critical of the “White Savior” narrative, although at times the story (told from the perspective of a young white man) is overwhelmed by the clear sense of entitlement even supposed liberal reformers can feel. But ultimately this is a cautionary tale for those who believe it is their place to “fix” a country to which they do not belong, a lesson that is just as important today as it was in the early 1960s.”

John Nichols, author of the Milagro Beanfield War, wrote, “A remarkable love story and vivid portrait of the great dilemma of our times, our national priorities and beleaguered world. I can’t remember when a tale so carefully and cleanly crafted, so understated and straightforward, has moved me so deeply at the end.”

Although he was born in Boston, Howard spent two years as a teenager with his family in Puerto Rico.

“It gave access to another culture and continent and sparked my curiosity about other people and places,” he said. “This immersion in societies unlike the one you were born into can have a deeply humanizing effect on a person. It opened me to the world. Without those two years in Puerto Rico, I believe I would have become a very different person and lived a very different life.”

There is a current parallel between Guatamela and the United States. Guatemala’s recently-elected president, Jimmy Morales, had never run for political office before and was best known as a television character. Sound familiar?

“Both (Morales and Trump) are products of dysfunctional political systems and societies suffering from terrible inequalities of wealth,” he said.

For more information, call the LBI branch library at 609-494-2480 or the Beach Haven Library at 609-492-7081.

— Eric Englund

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