Deb Olin Unferth’s first memoir follows a story collection and a novel, both published by McSweeney’s. Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War is the story of a young girl who…well…who does precisely what the title suggests. It’s 1987 when Unferth follows her ideology-saturated boyfriend to Nicaragua to sign up with the Sandinistas. Along the way they pass through the narrow maze of Central American countries seeking “revolutionary jobs” and generally doing their best—and often failing— to ingratiate themselves with agents of the revolution as well as civilian locals who are poor, struggling, striving, afraid, brave: the people. From the vantage of nearly a quarter century, Unferth tells her story with charming sympathy; a generous sense of humor lacquers the earnest nature of two relatively privileged young people slumming for the cause, facing a duo of crumbling truths: eternal love and ideologically sound political action. At times, their mission feels like a youthful romp: equal parts affectation and dedication, the precise ratio that fuels youth itself. While Revolution ’s narrative is, for the most part, chronological, Unferth’s tale is driven by the book’s own internal logic, more so than any pressing allegiance to history or hubris-laden claim of sovereignty over the banged up reality she and her sandaled brethren bore witness too. Hers is a tricky story to tell, potentially brazen, co-opting a war-torn region as a nifty backdrop for a witty coming-of-age story. But she pulls it off with near-perfect pitch. Unferth’s self-deprecating protagonist always defers to her older and wiser self and yet, for all she’s seen, this wiser self makes no sweeping claims of wisdom. Unferth has given us a truly unique memoir: in her skillful prose, history looms large and speaks softly. Even the book’s final sentiment—a pat commentary on revolution as something that happens inside, rather than outside of us—is easily undercut by the strength of all that came before it.
Henry Holt and Company
Sara Nelson is a contributing editor at the Review.