Matthew's Reviews > River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

River Town by Peter Hessler
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Apr 28, 08

bookshelves: essaysjournalism
Read in March, 2008

Halfway through River Town, I can't help but observe that Pete Hessler was just 27 when he arrived to teach English for the Peace Corp in Fuling, the town on which his memoir/travelogue is based. My favourite books are like this, I can't help but see blurred reflections of myself in them. I wish I'd read Hessler before I went to China for exchange in 2002, but I try to forgive myself the immaturity at that stage; after all I was just 21 then. It seems so old, though, 21, after NS, and compared to how adult 21-year olds seem when you read about them in books about developing countries. 27-year old Hessler seems so intelligent about travel, so able to observe the surroundings and people and himself at the same time - perhaps a function of his literature/anthropology background at Princeton. I turn 27 in just over a month, and River Town makes me wonder about whether I'm as mature a reporter as he is. I'm no longer a reporter, to be sure, but I think of it less as a profession than as a way of being, a mode of living, of openness at a personal level, and of penetrating different niches of experience and observing and thinking through them, eventually perhaps writing about them.

In any case, here's a comment he makes deep into the book, which I think is so quintessentially journalistic. He's describing how he tried to use English to broach sensitive political topics with his students when he first arrived, and failed, but later, as he picked up Chinese, managed to do so.

"At last I realised that the fear wasn't of somebody else hearing. It was a question of comfort, because uncertain topics were more easily handled in their native language. But also I sensed that the true fear was of themselves: virtually all the limits had been established in their own minds. English had been learnt at school, and thus is was indistinguishable from the educational system and its political regulations... it was a school language, a waiguoren language, and in both contexts they had been trained to think and speak carefully."

More immediate than a historian would write, and more observational than a fiction writer would dictate, I think.

And elsewhere, later, just because I like this observation and not because its espescially poetic or anything: Of his students, he writes "They were tough and sweet and funny and sad, and people like that would always survive." I wonder about that.

On the whole, though, I'd say Oracle Bones - his second book, based on his later years in China as a freelance feature writer and New Yorker correspondent - is better written. He's perfected the feature magazine pace by then, the break in tone and subject, the circling back to subjects, the timed-release of detail, vital to the story like blood from a drip. River Town is more straightforward, less polished, his descriptions ramble more, but in that sense its also more poetic - a scene ends and you're not sure what the point is, because there is no point, its perhaps simply the writing down of a memory, and there is more in that than can be summarised into a point.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Yan (new) - rated it 3 stars

Yan I like what you said about the poetic part of River town and I truely agree with you. I am always interested in seeing what culture differences bring people; living in a foreign country is a good way of experiecing it, and more or less an escape from previous life.


Matthew thanks Yan... wow, I forgot I even wrote this review, was like 2 years ago...

Yan wrote: "I like what you said about the poetic part of River town and I truely agree with you. I am always interested in seeing what culture differences bring people; living in a foreign country is a good w..."


message 3: by Yan (new) - rated it 3 stars

Yan lol, it is a good review. thanks for the adding by the way


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