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Still Love in Strange Places: A Memoir

Still Love in Strange Places: A Memoir

by Beth Kephart

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When Beth Kephart met and fell in love with the artist who would become her husband, she had little knowledge of the place he came from -- an exotic coffee farm high in the jungle hills of El Salvador, a place of terrifying myths and even more frightening realities, of civil war and devastating earthquakes. Yet, love, she finds, means taking in not only the stranger


When Beth Kephart met and fell in love with the artist who would become her husband, she had little knowledge of the place he came from -- an exotic coffee farm high in the jungle hills of El Salvador, a place of terrifying myths and even more frightening realities, of civil war and devastating earthquakes. Yet, love, she finds, means taking in not only the stranger who is one's lover but also a stranger's history -- in this case, a country, language, people, and culture utterly foreign to a young American woman. Kephart's transcendently lyrical prose (often compared to the work of Annie Dillard) has already made her a National Book Award finalist. In each of her memoirs she has written about love, looking beyond her own life to seek out universal truths. In this new work, gorgeously illuminated with her own photographs, Kephart offers her testament to the ties that bind: the love -- by choice -- of a man, and the love -- by necessity -- of his homeland.

Editorial Reviews

This excellent memoir from BOOK contributor Kephart, the author of the National Book Award-nominated A Slant of Sun and Into the Tangle of Friendship, documents two decades of visits to El Salvador, the birthplace of her husband, who introduced her to the pastoral and dangerous country. A tiny but immoderate place, volcanic and mountainous and poor—and at the time, plagued by a recently concluded civil war—El Salvador was, in Kephart's mind, almost purely a locus of violence. On her first trip, the author, who didn't speak Spanish, found herself jouncing along a narrow mountain road in a Jeep packed with her husband's aunts, who exchanged unintelligible gossip, laughed uproariously and made "amusement-park shrieks" and "funny, mock-horror faces" when the car threatened to slide into the chasm below. Throughout the next eighteen years, Kephart documented stories of her husband's family and collected telling fragments of the nation's history. She writes in the book about the diet of the ancient Mayas; the bizarre beliefs of the dictator known as El Brujo, "The Sorceror"; and the murder in 1980 of Archbishop Romero, who was shot while saying Mass. The language, which has the cadence and color of fiction, captures the simplicity of the landscape and its people. As Kephart becomes attached to El Salvador, recognizing its beauty and human worth, so do her readers.
—Penelope Mesic

Publishers Weekly
"It is an anxious earth they live on," Kephart (A Slant of Sun) concludes, describing the El Salvador she's come to know by marrying one of its sons. It is a land born of massive geological movements (due to "conspiratorial lithospheric plates") and equally troubling ethno-political upheavals, from the Mayans to the Nahuatls and the Spanish to the modern-day oligarchs. Kephart sees herself as white-bread American, blandness personified, going to El Salvador in search of her husband's wild stories, ostensibly to pass them on to their son but, more fundamentally, to feel at home in her husband's home. It's a risky proposition, but Kephart realizes that listening requires "trying to forget who you are and what you think you need to know so that you can be... inside the church of another's memories." So she perseveres, and pieces come together, just as the Spanish language, initially "a gaggle of indivisible birds" starts making sense to her gringo ears. Kephart's eye for detail is extraordinary: she depicts the local cemetery as resembling the "aftermath of a pi$ata party." While basically enthusiastic, Kephart does have moments of self-doubt. Why is she so interested in her husband's stories, but no one's interested in her own quiet past? Should her husband's family's workers really be considered "dear friends," beneficiaries of the family's noblesse oblige, while other peasants are clearly the victims of upper-class greed? Anyone who has ever loved an outsider and tried to make it work by embracing that otherness will find great resonance in this beautiful, heartfelt memoir. Photos. Agent, Amy Rennert. (Apr.) Forecast: Although the immediate audience for Kephart's book seems rather small, strong word-of-mouth could make it a sleeper hit. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
As a writer, Kephart has moved from love of her child (A Slant of Sun) to love of friends (Into the Tangle of Friendship) to love of her husband, whose Salvadoran background she explores here. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kephart writes about her marriage to a Salvadoran artist and her efforts to understand his family, his psyche, and her own part in his life. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
A turbulent family drama enfolded in a nation's story. "Words are the weight that hold our histories in place," writes Kephart (A Slant of Sun, 1998, etc.), explaining her decision to record the history of her husband's childhood home, a mountainside coffee farm in El Salvador. She brings alive a farm, a town, and a country as seen through her own eyes and from "inside the church of another's memories." Out of her refined prose, never straining for affect, yet soulful and challenging, emerges a personal El Salvador of Maya, ancient tribes, and myth, of ferocious endless oppression, "a witch named Siguanaba and butterflies large as kittens," cocoa, indigo, coffee, reforms, unions, death squads, guerrillas, and a dozen families owning it all, of "the early nightfalls, the stunning daybreaks, the music of so many birds yet in the trees." Kephart wants to paint herself into this landscape; she concludes that can best be achieved by entering first into her husband's family history and then getting to know those who live there today. Most important is the grandfather, Carlos Alberto Bondanza, the landscape's inventor; the author celebrates his feat of not living at the expense of others, retells the stories of his dangerous, romantic youth, his taste for democracy that ran afoul of a bad government, his love of his farm and extended family, his legacy of decency when that was not a popular trait among the landowners. She also describes the peasants who work the land, journeys about the countryside, and a horrible series of quakes and slides. Kephart delivers these impressions unembellished, for they stand on their own. Particularly notable for the sinewy authorial voice, susceptible yet alsodauntless and alert, conveying powerful insights with a strong eye for detail and color and a sure sense of what is important at a particular time and place. (19 b&w photos)
Jayne Anne Phillips
“An exquisite gift, a poet's text on love, travel, spiritual sustenance, and the dark magic of El Salvador.”
Andre Dubus III
“With richly evocative prose than can only be called masterful, Beth Kephart illuminates here the questions we somehow keep forgetting to ask: how is it possible to fully love our mate without knowing and loving, too, where he or she was engendered? Still Love in Strange Places is a revelation and a feast!”
Sue Halpern
“I don't know how it is possible to take something as simple as words and make them into something as magnificent as this book, but Beth Kephart surely does. Here, again, is her exquisite devotion to language and to family. Here, again, is a book you will want to keep close at hand.”
Maria Laurino
“In the best tradition of the memoir, Beth Kephart's Still Love in Strange Places intimately speaks to the reader about the daunting limits of memory, the irrepressible power of blood ties, and the impossible task of fully knowing those we love. Her exquisite prose, as sensuous as the El Salvador land she describes, conjures the wounds of an irretrievable past and offers the salve of wisdom, compassion, and promise.”

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.84(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.98(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Memoir

By Beth Kephart


Copyright © 2002 Beth Kephart.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0393050742

Chapter One

The tear runs like a river through a map, hurtling down toward his right shoulder, veering threateningly at his neck, then diverting south only to again pivot east at the fifth brass button of his captain's uniform. Below the tear, two more brass buttons and the clasp of his hands and, below all that, the military saber; the loosening creases on his pants; the shoes with their reflections of the snap of camera light. He is one of three in a sepia-colored portrait, and someone had to think to save his face. Someone had to put the photo back together—re-adhere the northeast quadrant of this map with three trapezoids of tape so that his left hand would fall again from his left elbow and he would still belong to us. We suppose he is the best man at a wedding. We suppose that it was eighty years ago, before the matanza, before he was jailed and then set free, before he saved the money to buy the land that became St. Anthony's Farm.

    "Did I ever tell you what my grandfather did the year the farm first turned a profit?"


    "He threw the money into the air, the bills, and they got caught up with a wind."

    "And so?"

    "And so he ran after those colones through the park. Chased his own money through the leafy streets of Santa Tecla. Imagine that."

    I do. I am often imagining that. Imagining that I know him—this man whose likeness is my husband's face, whose features are now borne out by my son. His are the sepia eyes that passed through me. His is the broad nose, the high cheekbones, the determined mouth, the face not like an oval or a heart, but like a square. He died long before I'd ever meet him, but I carried him in my blood. Just as the land carries him still, remembers. Just as St. Anthony's Farm will someday, in part, belong to my son, requiring him to remember what he never really knew, to put a story with the past. Words are the weights that hold our histories in place. They are the stones that a family passes on, hand to hand, if the hands are open, if the hearts are.

    "You look like your great-grandfather."

    "I do?"

    "Yes. Come here. See? That's him, in the photograph."

    "Him? My great-grandfather?"


    "But he looks so young."

    "Well, he was young once. But that was a long time ago, in El Salvador."

    We remember. We imagine. We pass it down. We step across and through a marriage, retrieve the legacies for a son.

St. Anthony's Farm rises above a town called El Limón, above a river you can hear but cannot see. It rises at an angle that would pitch any mortal down, were it not for the trees, standing so densely close, each limb like a hand to hold, a brace. The trees that yield the Coffea arabica need height and cool to grow. Sun for only hours at a time. Soil rich in potash, nitrogen, phosphoric acid; preferably disintegrated volcanic rock.

    It's after the monsoon rains in May that white blossoms erupt from these stalwart trees—star-shaped, exuberant flowers that fill the air with a honeysuckle sweetness. And it's after the flowers dissipate that you find the nubs of cherries—emerald green at first, knuckled about the branches like so many determined fists as they slowly fatten, brighten with the sun. By December the fruit is ready and the pickers have come, taken up their places in the constricted alleys between the trees. You see their head scarves among the leaves—bright yellow, orange, green. You see the plastic bags of purple juice and the stack of cold tortillas that wait beside their feet, beside their baskets and their burlap bags, worn burlap bags, noticeably mended. You see their children gambol down the narrow, beveled paths, their own baskets hanging from a length of rope or a strap of worn leather about their necks, their smiles like sudden crescent moons amid the shadows. Hummingbirds rustle in the shade trees overhead. Beetles bicker. Dragonflies buzz in and out of the shrapnel flecks of light.

    I married all this when I married my husband. I married a foreign language and a national preoccupation with a witch named Siguanaba and butterflies large as kittens. El Salvador, the Savior. The size of Massachusetts. The politics of oppression. The peril of a swatch of earth that trembles still above its fault lines. When I was a kid ..., I've heard my husband say on the path ahead. Before the war.... When my grandfather was alive.... The past in the present. A man long gone who is still, by a kind of miracle, alive.

    Carlos Alberto Bondanza was Bill's grandfather's name. He remains a legend among those who yearly come to free the coffee cherries from the trees. They remember the priest he'd bring to the hills. The fruit trees he invented. The parcels of land he rented for free to those he trusted with his coffee. They remember the silence he brought on with his siesta, and the hen-like chacha that he coaxed into mating with the pheasant, playing like God in the hills. His feat, they say, was living well. His feat was not living at the expense of others.

He died of cancer, and Bill's lasting regret is that he did not die among the coffee trees. "I should have kidnapped him from that sick room and taken him up the road to the hills. But you know how that road is," he now says, and I do; this part I understand.

    Today the trip from the city house in Santa Tecla to the farm above El Limón is its own indigenous form of torture—not just the traffic but all that's inclined toward erosion. To get above the city, one must first go straight through it, into and out of the mess of the marketplace. It's everything you imagine a city ringed by mountains is. The narrowed-to-nothing Pan-American Highway jammed with thin tin cars and huffy tractor-trailers and psychedelic buses that wear passengers on their roofs and on their running boards, on hemp ladders tied to the back where the exhaust pipes spew rubble with their smoke. The only relief is the park—one high-curbed, block-sized square of beaten grass, a few shade trees, a scattering of towering palms. There stands a makeshift wooden stage, where sometimes the mayor will preach or a marimba band will play or, in Decembers past, they would hold a beauty pageant for the Santa Tecla girls, allowing anyone who could afford to vote to buy their vote and crowning, consistently, the ugliest girl in town. It is in this park that Don Alberto once tossed his money to the sky. It is across its bordering tumultuous roadway where he maintained his city residence—a grand stucco edifice with a lush fruit-tree garden that I saw but once from a distance, some thirteen years ago, before bulldozers knocked it to the ground.

    The marketplace is what the people have made it. It is the shabby, precarious architecture of hot metal lean-tos and cardboard roofs and blankets and milk crates and goods. Time and again the bureaucrats have tried to contain it, building block-long warehouses into which to stuff the merchants. Always the commerce has spilled back onto the streets, everything defiantly elbow to elbow. The charred pig on a stick beside the splitting sacks of coffee, the stalks of flowers keeping company with the fish, the shopkeepers fast asleep in their folding chairs, live chickens peeking out from haphazard shadows, and, of course: the corn-husk dolls, the rush-woven mats, the palm-leaf hats, the decorated gourds, the goose-feather powder puffs, the lidded baskets and the baskets made of vine. Coatepeque crabs have been known to get loose from merchant baskets and to scramble in among the hairy husks of corn or the hard white crusts of cheese, and all day long, on blackened dirty grills, on comales, with the help of smoothened metates, little girls make pupusas and tortillas. At one point the market depletes itself, and there are no stalls at all, nothing propped up overhead to ward off the relentless sun. Then there is only the sprawl of blankets, torn paper bags, faded newsprint that separates the women and the children from the direct heat of the earth. They come from miles away to sell whatever they have. They sit and they sleep in the streets.

    You can see all that from your car or your jeep, as you sit in the stranglehold of traffic, the air so dense with gasoline that you finally swallow it down. You can hear its history in the tales that Bill will tell about the house where he was born—just over there, a barbershop now where his mother's sitting room once was—or about that bit of open space, now wreckage, where he would come and spin tops with his friends. You can hear the resonance in the stories he doesn't tell, in the secrets you know he's keeping, in the Spanish he preserves for himself, and you can be made to feel lonely, or you can be made to feel alive, alert, privileged, even, to be here beside him, to take this journey which is his, to be forced up against a place you'd hardly know of otherwise. You are forced, in El Salvador, to make decisions.

    It can take five minutes or more to advance a single Santa Tecla block, and then another five minutes and you break free, turning left off the Pan-American Highway, then right and left again, snaking through the streets between hovels and merchants and pedestrians and drunks, the leathery old men pissing their guaro onto the many-fissured sidewalks. Today it's Bill's mother, Nora, at the wheel of our jeep, and nothing cows her; she fights the traffic and the serpent streets with everybody else until the asphalt turns to dirt and we hit the base of the coffee mountain, where it is poverty again, just a different color. But back then it would have been Bill at the wheel, his grandfather in the throes of the cancer beside him.

    There would have been no way—no possible way—for Bill's grandfather to take this journey one last time. And still Bill dreams of what might have been. He dreams of settling a mat outside amid the aroma of the trees and giving Don Alberto a view of the land that became his. Giving him more time among the peasants who were the keepers of his farm, his friends. Giving him more time with Bill, who struggles to remember what he can in fact remember, to hold on to it and to give particles away, so that it can become somebody else's. His wife's: received, assimilated, and sometimes stolen. And, of course, his son's.

Excerpted from STILL LOVE IN STRANGE PLACES by Beth Kephart. Copyright © 2002 by Beth Kephart. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of a memoir trilogy. She has written about writing and the imagination for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and Parenting. She lives in Devon, Pennsylvania.

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