Kephart's 'Still Love': cleaving the land

April 21, 2002|By Helene Stapinski | By Helene Stapinski,Special to the Sun

Still Love in Strange Places, by Beth Kephart. W.W. Norton & Co. 224 pages. $24.95.

Beth Kephart writes, "In 1984, one year after I met the man I'd marry, one year before I said I do, the revolutionary forces brought their war, in force, to the land Bill had grown up loving."

For nearly two decades, Kephart has been trying to get to know her husband and the land that he loves -- El Salvador. In her new memoir, she sifts through its soil and the history books written about it, giving us detailed lessons in geomorphology, ecology, agriculture, culture, politics and economics.

She pores over Bill's family photos -- zeroing in on his favorite relative, grandfather Don Alberto, who bears an eerie resemblance to Bill and their son, Jeremy, for whom Kephart insists she's writing this book. On her first page, she describes one sepia photograph of Don Alberto and shows it to us -- reproduced with a tear that "runs like a river through a map, hurtling down toward his right shoulder."

It's in the stories of Don Alberto -- his brushes with death and his love of the land -- that Kephart comes closest to the heart of the family and its coffee farm. Closest to the heart of Bill.

But Kephart never got to know Don Alberto, who died from cancer right before the most recent revolution. So she travels to El Salvador, and takes us with her. Those visits, though, prove even more frustrating -- both for Kephart and for the reader. We watch Bill yuck it up with the relatives, never including his wife. How can Bill "so quiet, so private, so taciturn in English -- dial in to a spontaneity I had never once provoked in him, a full gut laugh that he'd simply never laughed with me?" She wanders about alone, taking photos of the servants, children and inanimate objects (whose reproductions here offer no insight). She doesn't speak Spanish, so everything she needs to know gets lost in translation.

It's in these visits, strangely enough, that Kephart's writing comes most alive, where the material and description are her own, and where her opinion begins to jell.

Still, she seems to make excuses for her in-laws, wealthy landowners in a nation fighting over whether to divide its land among its workers. Though her mother-in-law seems like a wonderful woman, there are still nagging questions Kephart can't bring herself to ask. For starters, whose side are they on? There's a war on, and aside from a few tales of kidnapped neighbors and hidden jewelry, no one seems to have much of an opinion. Or maybe they do, and Kephart simply can't understand what they're saying, or can't bring herself to tell us.

Kephart talks time and again about "cleaving" and the duality of the word. But she never really brings anything together. It's into the gap -- the cleaving between husband and wife, the space between cultures, the two sides of war -- that Kephart finally falls headfirst. And maybe that's the point.

"My husband's family," she writes, "owned land; they believed, like others who owned the land, that export agriculture was their nation's saving grace Fracture a farm and the land grows inefficient."

In a twist that proves fact is sometimes more powerful than fiction, the book ends with a major, devastating Salvadoran earthquake, the land cleaving, fracturing the farm on its own, as if to say, here, it is broken. Divide it amongst yourselves. Unfortunately, Kephart barely uses the natural metaphor, as if she's afraid of insulting the in-laws.

"El Salvador is an unstable place," she merely concludes. "The land has a mean mind of its own."

Helene Stapinski's memoir, Five-Finger Discount, explored her childhood and adolescence in Jersey City, N.J., and the social dynamics of graft, survival, love and wit. A journalist who has been both a reporter and a columnist, she lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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