Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War


Rising literary star Deb Olin Unferth offers a new twist on the coming-of-age memoir in this utterly unique and captivating story of the year she ran away from college with her Christian boyfriend and followed him to Nicaragua to join the Sandinistas.

Despite their earnest commitment to a myriad of revolutionary causes and to each other, the couple find themselves unwanted, unhelpful, and unprepared as they bop around Central America, looking for "revolution jobs." The year is ...

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Rising literary star Deb Olin Unferth offers a new twist on the coming-of-age memoir in this utterly unique and captivating story of the year she ran away from college with her Christian boyfriend and followed him to Nicaragua to join the Sandinistas.

Despite their earnest commitment to a myriad of revolutionary causes and to each other, the couple find themselves unwanted, unhelpful, and unprepared as they bop around Central America, looking for "revolution jobs." The year is 1987, a turning point in the Cold War. The East-West balance has begun to tip, although the world doesn't know it yet, especially not Unferth and her fiancé (he proposes on a roadside in El Salvador). The months wear on and cracks begin to form in their relationship: they get fired, they get sick, they run out of money, they grow disillusioned with the revolution and each other.  But years later the trip remains fixed in her mind and she finally goes back to Nicaragua to try to make sense of it all.  Unferth's heartbreaking and hilarious memoir perfectly captures the youthful search for meaning, and is an absorbing rumination on what happens to a country and its people after the revolution is over.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In 1987, Unferth set off to Central America with her idealistic boyfriend, George, determined to join "the revolution." Any revolution would do. In her deft account, Unferth retraces their journey, beginning in Guatemala and working north. Though the duo weren’t able to play an active role until they reached violent El Salvador, where they cared for children literally caught in the middle of a civil war, took part in protests, and interviewed priests about assassinations, the couple also wrestled with an inner revolution—their relationship. Bonded by frequent interrogations from soldiers, ever-present illnesses, heat, and gigantic, "evil" spiders, the two grew close, only to find their bond dissolve as time wore on and they made their way home. Though her journey was certainly dramatic, Unferth avoids melodrama and doesn’t dwell on particularly nasty aspects; her focus is on the story, and in that arena, she excels with a wry, self-deprecating voice that propels the tale forward. Though her emotional economy (she never fully explores her complicated relationship with her family) gives the book an unfinished quality that can be frustrating, Unferth’s prose is a pleasure to read. (Feb.)
From the Publisher
"This is a very funny, excoriatingly honest story of being young, semi-idealistic, stupid and in love. If you have ever been any of these things, you'll devour it."—Dave Eggers

"Deb Olin Unferth is one of the most ambitious and inspirational writers working today. Her memoir of idealistic, bewildered people-in-training befell me like a fever for which, I'm happy to report, there appears to be no cure. An encounter with Unferth's prose is to be permanently, wondrously afflicted by its genius."—Heidi Julavits, author of The Uses of Enchantment

"Revolution is the best of many worlds: misconceived youth, sharp humor and sharper characters, and mostly, for me, the chance to witness a brand of paragraph-to-paragraph artistry that is much too rare."—John Brandon, author of Citrus County

"Brave, soulful...Unferth has a distinct, droll voice. Reading her is like listening to a girlfriend burning with gin-fueled enlightenment."—The New York Times Book Review (Editor's Choice Pick)

Revolution calls itself a memoir, but it's something altogether stranger and more dazzling: It's a virtuosic one-woman show....It's smart, stylish, compulsive reading: memoir at its best."—Time Out New York

"Unferth writes with a sly, understated appreciation for the absurd...A dryly humorous memoir of love, travel and wide-eyed idealism."—Kirkus

"This clearheaded and funny memoir captures the grit and chaos of a tumultuous moment in Central American history, but it's really a coming-of-age story...[Unferth] didn't become a revolutionary, but she did become a grown-up."—Mother Jones

“Unferth’s application of her imagination to her subject…evokes what David Forster Wallace referred to as ‘the click,’ a feeling one gets when reading work that’s firing on all cylinders.”—Bookforum

"Hers is a bildungsroman for the Believer set, a portrait of the artist as a young and clueless revolutionary."—The New York Observer

"Unferth's prose remains as sure and slicing as a machete, clearing a path through a jungle of emotions...A memoir of unique lucidity, wit, and power."—Booklist

Kirkus Reviews

Chronicle of the chaotic year during which two-time Pushcart Prize–winning author Unferth (English/Wesleyan Univ.; Vacation, 2008, etc.) and her then-boyfriend went from being college coeds to aspiring communist revolutionaries in Central America.

The author recounts the highly unusual journey on which she embarked in 1987.With little more than $2,000 and a bottle of malaria pills, Unferth and her idealistic boyfriend George traversed Central America via buses, from Mexico down to Panama. They had hoped to join the Sandinistas and procure "revolution jobs," but "it turned out that few people wanted to hire us and if they did, they almost immediately fired us." Inspired by George, whose inability to deny anyone's request for money left the couple in a perpetual state of poverty and hunger, Unferth converted from an "atheist Jew" to a "Calvinish-Marxist-Kierkegaardian Christian." Among the many misadventures that ensued, highlights include stints at a dysfunctional Salvadoran orphanage and a nearby brothel, followed, months later, by their inadvertent participation in an enormous protest against Noriega's military dictatorship in Panama. The chaste couple, who got engaged on the trip despite Unferth's mounting doubts about their shared future, struggled with nagging money and visa issues, and were robbed repeatedly, including at knifepoint. After living on a paltry diet consisting mainly of bread, Unferth's belly grew distended. She also suffered from dysentery, insects that burrowed beneath her skin and a slew of other health problems, all of which she describes in uncomfortably graphic detail. "Mostly," she writes, "I did not have fun." Fortunately, Unferth writes with a sly, understated appreciation for the absurd. Though the relationship didn't stick and the author returned to the Midwest, the memories of the trip inspired her earlier writing, subsequent trips to Nicaragua and a private detective–aided search for George.

A dryly humorous memoir of love, travel and wide-eyed idealism.

Julia Scheeres
Mocking one's younger self is a middle-age rite of passage. The jaded grown-up derides as naïve the idealistic or altruistic impulses of youth. (Silly us: we once had convictions!) Underlying this sneering condescension, of course, is grief. We'll never be that tender, certain or passionate about anything again…Deb Olin Unferth's brave, soulful memoir…is an extended meditation on this tendency. …Unferth…has a distinct, droll voice. Reading her is like listening to a girlfriend burning with gin-fueled enlightenment.
—The New York Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805093230
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/1/2011
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Deb Olin Unferth is the author of the story collection Minor Robberies and the novel Vacation, winner of the 2009 Cabell First Novelist Award and a New York Times Book Review Critics' Choice. Her work has been featured in Harper's Magazine, McSweeney's, The Believer, and the Boston Review. She has received two Pushcart Prizes and a 2009 Creative Capital grant for Innovative Literature. She teaches at Wesleyan University and currently lives in New York.

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Read an Excerpt

Part One

The New World


I had food in my heart and mind that morning. My parents had said they'd pick George and me up at the border and take us anywhere we wanted to eat. I wanted to go to McDonald's. My father thought that was funny. Part of his story for a long time was how the first place I wanted to go when I came back from fomenting the Communist revolution was McDonald's. Hey, to me at that moment, McDonald's looked pretty good. We'd seen McDonald's in Mexico, of course, and Honduras and other places, but we hadn't been able to afford it. Now, approaching the border, I was thinking about that lighted menu board. I was thinking about how I already knew what the food I ordered would look like. I knew what the French fries would look like, what the containers would look like, although I'd never been to that particular McDonald's. I knew what I'd get when I got a sundae. That seemed like a neat and attractive trick to me now. There would be toilet paper in the bathrooms. And soap. There were the little songs on TV, the McDonald's songs that people all over the world knew and I had sung when I was a kid, the Big Mac chant, the Hamburglar. George was asleep beside me, had slept through the last seven hours of desert. "George, wake up," I said. "We're going to McDonald's."

Popular Priest

My boyfriend and I went to join the revolution.

We couldn't find the first revolution.

The second revolution hired us on and then let us go.

We went to the other revolutions in the area—there were several—but every one we came to let us hang around for a few weeks and then made us leave.

We ran out of money and at last we came home.

I was eighteen. That's the whole story.

George and I were walking through a shantytown. Two weeks into Mexico, the beginning of our trip, and we were outside Mexico City. An American priest walked ahead. He was saying hello to people and taking their hands. He was saying good-bye to them and waving. Que te vaya bien. Adiós. Dios te bendiga. They chimed back. We walked a long way, following this priest.

It was 1987, and at that time these little liberation theology institutes were set up all over Latin America, "popular churches," they were called, short chapels with small gardens, places for people to get together and help usher in the revolution. The priests were in charge and they could be from anywhere—South America, Spain, the States—but most were from down the street. We liked to drop in when we found these setups. We interviewed whoever happened to be hanging around and we borrowed books from their shelves and got the people to take us out. We liked to get the scoop.

So we'd met this priest at his instituto and he'd brought us to the shantytown. He was doing some work, fixing up some floors. He thought we just might like to see.

When you think of a shantytown, you imagine a few square blocks of board and tin, some chickens running through, but it's a whole city, a thousand thin paths, kilometers and kilometers of housewives standing outside askew miniature-sized houses, not a window pane in sight, the air moist and buzzing.

"These people are born and die here," the priest was telling us. "They have no way to get out." He raised his hand to show us where they had to stay.

"Well, at least they've got their little houses," I said. I was impressed with how tidy it all was. "Some have less than that."

The priest looked over at me.

Then he was gone. Just like that. Left George and me standing by a flower of electrical cords coming out of a pole.

We waited a while. Roosters called to each other in the distance. Then we started puzzling around the shacks, trying to find our way back. We were soon lost. We felt stupid and rude walking along, a couple of idiot gringos slapping at the mosquitoes and grinning. We were sad about the priest. Why had he gone away? He'd left us and we deserved it. We'd been bad-mannered. I'd been bad-mannered, according to George. George knew better than to say a thing like that. Oh yeah? I said. Then why had the priest left George here with me?

These priests for the liberation. You did not want to mess with them. Latin America was swinging to the left, hoisted on pulleys by these radical priests, and some said the Vatican was to blame. In 1962 the pope had summoned the world's bishops to Rome for the Vatican Two Council, to talk about how to renew the Church, how to be relevant to the laypeople. The story goes that the bishops met each fall for four years. They talked about things like how perhaps they should not say mass in Latin anymore because no one understood it (although the entire conference took place in Latin). Some of the South American bishops and priests thought that one way to renew the Church was to organize the lay into groups, maybe even guerrilla armies, and then rise up and overthrow their governments. Soon a continent of priests was storing weapons and reading Marx in the name of Vatican Two. They turned their churches into revolutionary enclaves and invited students to come live in them like a herd of hippies. Some priests held secret meetings with guerrilla rebels. Some manned radio frequencies that kept tabs on the national guard. And when the skirmishes began, some priests came out shooting. Every day their chapels filled with citizens, and the priests never stopped talking about Vatican Two, the theology of liberation, how the Church was a socialist soldier for the poor, and how grateful they were for this mandate from God. Of course the pope didn't mean to produce an infantry of gun-touting South American priests, and he said so, but it was too late.

Late for the pope, but early for George and me. This priest was the first of his kind, we'd found. We walked, lost, through the shantytown. Houses tacked up to each other with clothes hangers, a cobweb of roofs held down with tires. Outhouses winged out over the river. Lightless rooms, cardboard town. We began getting upset at seeing how poor the people were, now that we were looking more carefully. Ladies and kids stopped us and pointed in different directions, laughing behind their hands. A few folks followed us. We handed out all of our bills. We didn't see how we would ever find our way back. George was taking us in circles. Oh, right, he said, he was taking us in circles, perfect. We began to panic.

Suddenly the priest was there, stepped out in front of us. Ho ho. He'd stopped in to look at a floor he and some friends had put in. Lost track of us.

What, had we been nervous about getting stuck here? he wondered. About not being able to get out?

"Okay, okay, we get it already," we said, though we did not.

Excerpted from Revolution by Deb Olin Unferth

Copyright 2011 by Deb Olin Unferth

Published in 2011 by Henry Holt and Company

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 3, 2011


    This book is a gem: every page sparkles with the author's artistry. Unferth magically captures, in lean but powerful prose, both the humor and pathos of her youthful misadventures wandering around Central America with her boyfriend in search of a revolution to join. I do not read many memoirs, but this is one that I'm very glad I did not overlook.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 3, 2011

    wonderful book. so different from other memoirs!

    i loved this book. it was hilarious, touching and real. I especially love that the author was willing to expose herself when she was a young, clueless student in love. Naturally, this only works because it's 20 years down the line. I don't usually love memoirs but this was up there with Nick FLynn's for originality and fresh writing. A seriously great book. I know people will go crazy for this one.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 5, 2011

    read right now!

    Revolution is hilarious and smart and deeply moving. In genre (memoirs) where the story is often interesting, while the writing flat---Unferth has turned the world on its head. Her prose crackles, all in a riveting story. It made me think about my own teenage years--both longing for them and wanting to die of humiliation and unable to stop laughing.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 29, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    An unusual and poignant memoir

    When Deb Olin Unferth was 18, she fell in love with George, a fellow student, who was rather rebellious, and bit strange. Being in love, it seemed young Deb would do anything for her boyfriend. She changed her religion from Jewish to Christian, to her family's dismay, and followed George on his journey to 'foment' the revolution in Central America.

    The naiveté of youth leads Deb to somewhere she is totally unprepared for, and the often treacherous journey to Nicaragua leaves an impression on her that remains to this day. From reading the memoir, it seems that some twenty years after her venture into this unknown territory, she is still deeply affected by that trip. Indeed she made a journey back to Nicaragua after ten years and then continued to visit the places she'd been to in her youth for years, as if the country had some kind of hold on her.

    This book is one woman's story about how love can make people do the strangest things, and also how first love can leave its mark for a lifetime. It appears, from reading the book, that the author retains a deep curiosity about her ex-fiancé, George (he proposed whilst they were on the road and they broke off the engagement soon after. They lost touch a few years after returning home).

    On their trip to join the revolution in 1987, Deb and George find jobs and get fired, sleep in spider-infested hotels, get very ill, get robbed many times, and almost drown at sea. There are very interesting stories about their adventure told in a humourous and sentimental way by the author.

    The book is very well written, and kept me interested. It's quite thought-provoking and insightful in parts.

    Reviewed by Maria Savva as a reviewer for Bookpleasures.

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  • Posted March 12, 2011


    Picture yourself 18 years old, a freshman in college and on your own for the first time in your life. With your first taste of freedom, you fall for the wrong boy and run off to South America because he thinks it is a good idea. Deb Olin Unferth does exactly this. I kept asking myself, why would anyone do this? Well, Deb answers like a typical unsure 18 year old with this memoir. There are some seriously funny moments in this book, but I was a bit frustrates in a couple of stories where they just kind of ending with "I forget" or "can't remember", but then I realized I couldn't remember anything from my time as an 18 year old except that I thought I knew everything.

    Her revolutionary period didn't involve fighting but lots of short stints of being domestic help since some one needs to help the kids displaced by war. Her recounting of helping in an orphanage is truly inspired. She decides that she will help the kids learn to speak English and farm. All noble ideals except the she doesn't know enough Spanish to teach them English and the kids know more than her about gardening. She buys flower seeds instead of vegetables. This is a very wonderful read for anyone who wished they ran away to rebel, but didn't have the guts. I received this book from the publisher at no expense in exchange for my honest review.

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  • Posted February 14, 2011

    more from this reviewer


    This memoir is about a young woman's journey to find a revolution in Central America with her boyfriend. George and Deb are two lost young Americans who are looking for a war to help fight and maybe love along the way in 1987 Central American. The writing is witty and fast paced. This short book though is really about first love and why this one year in the life of the author seems to be haunting her some twenty years later.

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  • Posted February 3, 2011

    more from this reviewer


    I love reading memoirs, but I struggle with reviewing them. It's hard to give a book a good review if you don't like the author, regardless of how well written the book is. I'll try to be fair.

    Once I started this book, I wanted to keep on reading it. The style drew me in and the stories about the author's life were well put together. It flowed nicely.
    I didn't like Deb at all though. She struck me as a spoiled child. People with attitudes and personalities like hers are the reason that people in other countries dislike Americans so much.

    She wanted a "revolution" so she could have an adventure. She gave little to no thought about the people who were living through it for real. At one point she even said that shortly after leaving the orphanage where she had been working she "forgot all about the kids." That was when I really stopped liking her. I wouldn't read anything else that she writes, her writing ability aside, just because I don't want to give her any of my money.

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted February 3, 2011

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    Posted February 4, 2011

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