WASHINGTON DC

Represent: You Are One Of Them- Elliot Holt

The first surprise of the book was to be found at the back in the form of a photograph. Elliot Holt, who I had wrongly assumed was a man on account of the name, was very much a women. So far this is her only novel but it has been highly commended by newspapers and other authors, she has also won many awards for her various short stories.

Using her own life experiences, Holt provides her readers with a story that is pure continuous believability from start to finish. Her effortless narrative about these two cities and the people who live within them, their cultures, their habits and their ideology’s, make you certain that the author has not just researched them but has also lived them. 
She draws on her own childhood in Washington DC to take a simple description of a metro ride up to the next level. Having also spent time residing in Moscow, she puts those years to good use by painting us an accurate depiction of a country that at that time, was off limits to most people. 

One powerful opening sentence later and I was hooked, “The first defector was my sister.” In fact, I’ve read this book twice for this project as I was too busy last summer to get around to writing this blog post. Some books are a struggle or boring to read for the second time, but this one was just as good, if not better. The cherry on the cake was to discover that Holt had based her novel and the character of Jennifer Jones on real events and a real 10 year old girl who lived in Maine. 

In 1982 Samantha Reed Smith decided to write a letter to the newly elected Yuri Andropov of what was then known as the USSR. After seeing him on the cover of an edition of Times magazine, she asked her mother “If people are so afraid of him, why doesn’t someone write a letter asking whether he wants to have a war or not?” Her mother replied, “Why don’t you?” I find it fascinating how a child of 10 was so aware of the events happening around her but thought it appropriate to approach something as deadly as war with something as simple as a letter. 

Much to her surprise I’m sure, she received a reply and an invitation from Andropov to travel to the USSR for two weeks with her family. She toured around the country visiting numerous cities and pioneer camps, she spent time with Russian children and became a symbol of hope and peace between the two nations. Tragically at the age of 13 she died in a plane crash with her father, there was much speculation about the circumstances of the accident, many believing that it was orchestrated by the American government for reasons unknown.

Even though technically Washington DC is not a state, it has to be included in this project because it is and always has been an important part of the USA. Having been there myself, I believe this book represents the ‘darker side’ of the city shall we say. Many government outfits are based there or close by, including the military, the secret services and the intelligence agencies. DC seems like a place where everybody has an interesting or an important job, but you’re never actually 100% sure of what your friend does for a living. 

‘You are one of them’ certainly leaves many unanswered questions, the biggest one being whether Jennifer Jones actually died in the plane crash or not. But unlike some book or movie endings where you are left unsatisfied or annoyed by the lack of explanations, this outcome seems to fitting and I don’t mind being left to wonder about the outcome. 

Most Read: The Alchemist- Paulo Coelho

It’s small in size but mighty in meaning. Every page of this book is heavy with a message, a theme or a character representing a life lesson. Written in just 2 weeks in 1987 and published a year later, you would never know that this book was originally composed in Portuguese. The translation so fluid, the descriptions so smooth, the tale flows as if it had always been written in English.

Santiago the Andalusian Shepard has his whole life mapped out ahead of him. He is guiding his flock of sheep to a village where in 3 days time he intends to ask for the merchants daughters hand in marriage. His plans soon begin to unravel when he meets an old king named Melchizedek who reveals the concept of a Personal Legend to him and discloses that if he travels to the Pyramids of Egypt, he will find treasure there. To us, a Personal Legend is finding ones destiny, following ones path, fulfilling ones fate.

With the tales of treasure ringing in his ears, he abandons thoughts of marriage, sells his sheep and buys a boat ticket to Tangier. Before he had seen his sheep as a way to travel, a way to be free to do as he pleases but soon, Santiago comes to realise that even though they meant certainty and stability, they also acted as an anchor. 

On his travels to find his treasure he gets robbed, twice, but he also masters a new language, experiences a different culture, sails across the ocean, rides through the desert and falls deeply in love. He learns patience through working for a crystal seller and witnesses first hand the results of not pursuing your Personal Legend. He meets an Englishman also travelling through the desert, who is so focused on his books and his end goal of finding The Alchemist, that he misses the journey and what happens in front of his very eyes. 

I felt a deep connection with this book, on the positive side it showed me that I really have lived life to the maximum so far. I’ve made choices very different to those of my friends, which in turn has led to numerous opportunities being presented to me, allowing me to as cliché as it sounds, follow my dreams. Santiagos journey reminded me that it isn’t the end destination that is most important but the experience as a whole to reach it. For me personally, travelling to India for 6 months wouldn’t have felt like such an achievement if my parents had just given me the money instead of me working hard for 2 years to save it up.

This book seems to have split a nation, I’d compare it to marmite for those who know what that is. The New York Times claimed it was “more self-help than literature”, which in a way, I do have to agree. I definitely believe that it would be a beneficial read for those who are feeling a little lost or those who are at a cross roads in their life. On goodreads.com, a website where readers can review books and give a star rating, The Alchemist was given scathing write ups by most. All I can say about those people, is that they obviously have not pursued their own Personal Legends. 

 “It’s the simple things in life that are the most extraordinary.”