So let me save all of you a few precious hours of your life and just give you the condensed version of Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School At A Time by Greg Mortenson and David Relin. I wish someone had done that for me!
There’s this big dorky American who climbs mountains, but not that well. He attempts to climb K-2 but doesn’t summit because he stops to help someone (there is no doubt that the man is a GOOD GUY- yes I meant to put that in all CAPS- this book is practically hero worship). So he helps somebody out, but then he gets lost on the mountain for a day or two. Through his super duper climbing instincts, he manages to find his way back to his guide, but then loses him again, walks right past a bridge he’s supposed to cross and into the remote mountain village of Korphe in Pakistan all weak and cold. The man is lost but he finds his life’s purpose.
Korphe is an isolated place. There’s not much food, there’s not much anything really, but the people there are kind and take care of Mortenson. They treat him like an honored guest, feed him and nurse him back to health. He gets to know these people and has a powerful desire to give back to them, so he (a nurse) tends to their ailments. They are grateful and call him Dr. Greg. One day he sees some kids scratching out lessons in the dirt and suddenly he realizes these kids need a school. He vows to come back and build them one.
SO the big dorky American goes home, obsessed. He lives in his car to save money for his school. He lands a job as a night nurse and by day he writes letters to potential benefactors about this school he wants to build in Pakistan. He even writes to Oprah. He painstakingly types out 300 letters or so on a typewriter before he discovers this would all go much faster if he used a computer (DOH!) After sending a few hundred more letters, he gets one response, for $100. In the meantime he meets a girl, who doesn’t seem to mind that he’s dorky and lives in his car. It’s all good, apparently, but his fundraising efforts are tanking, big time, until he gets a little free press in a climbing newsletter and soon he’s got the funding he needs to go back to Korphe.
Ok, so are you still with me? Stay awake, people! Focus! Mortenson goes back to Pakistan, buys a bunch of supplies, gets the runaround, loses a bunch of supplies, does a whole bunch of things wrong- which could have possibly been amusing, but wasn’t- finally gets to the little mountain village only to be told that the supplies can’t get there unless a bridge is built. Hmmm. Why didn’t he think of that? How the heck was he planning to get all that wood and concrete and all those tools up the treacherous mountain footpaths that pass for roads? How was he going to cross the raging Braldu River (slaps hand on forehead)? Mortenson stays two months longer than expected, because he really has no concept of time. He’s not much of a planner. He’s a “put the cart before the horse” type, a “leap before you look” kind of guy. Anyway, when the money runs out, he goes back home to raise funds for the bridge.
Mortenson is surprised and sad to learn that his girlfriend, who he didn’t contact for weeks, has moved on. So he finds a really gross cheap apartment that smells like smoke and booze in a bad neighborhood (to save money, I guess-plus he’d sold his former abode-the car), sleeps on the floor, starts working again, and calls his benefactor to see about more money. The money man invites him to this event where he meets Tara, and 6 days later they get married. Again, he jumps in before thinking things through, although I guess this style sort of works for him.
Some other stuff happens with the Taliban and al Queda, and some schools get built. There is the yak dung incident. There is an ibex hunt. Some feasting. A baby is born. Everybody has tea. More schools. There are about a dozen pictures in the middle of the book.
Ok, so.. why did I not like this book? First of all- I feel bad. I wanted to like it. I certainly liked the message- that one person can make a difference. Greg Mortenson’s accomplishments are inspiring and I’m glad he didn’t give up even after many setbacks. But- throughout the book they use the 3rd person point of view for Greg, which really bugged me. A first person account would have been so much more effective and interesting, but the 3rd person made me feel very removed from it all. The writing is dry; so, SO dry. Even when writing about something like a kidnapping at gunpoint, the delivery was flat and boring. Boring! I had to force myself to keep reading, setting a timer and sitting down with it for 15 minutes at a crack. It’s a book club pick, so it carries an obligation, but if it had not been I would have pitched it.
I admire Mortenson and what he was able to accomplish; I’m impressed by how he was able to overcome literal and figurative roadblocks to reach his goals. But man, couldn’t he have found a writer to make Three Cups of Tea a little more appealing to the reader? It sort of felt like a newspaper article that went on and on for 300+ pages. This happened, then this happened, then this happened, then that. The end.
I recommend that if you’re interested in the story, read about it on the website- at least the pictures are in color, unlike the ones in the book. Check it out HERE.
Many people have read and reviewed this book in the last couple of years. I will need to find all those and round them up for you, but in the meantime you can check out this review from Dawn at She is Too Fond of Books.
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