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When I Was Elena

4.26  ·  Rating details ·  68 ratings  ·  16 reviews
When I Was Elena is an extraordinary account of a young American woman's sojourn in the guerrilla-infested mountains of Guatemala. Shattering the concept of a typical memoir, the author's personal story is interlaced, chapter-for-chapter, with tales told from the perspectives of seven indigenous women she encountered during her journey. At once a coming-of-age adventure an ...more
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published February 28th 2006 by Permanent Press (NY)
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4.26  · 
Rating details
 ·  68 ratings  ·  16 reviews

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Shawn Sorensen
A powerful, scary, sad, searing and courageous memoir. I was a human rights observer for Peace Brigades International in Guatemala for four months in 2004, and no book has captured the fear, dread and overwhelming experience of being in that dirt poor, violent and corrupt country better than "When I Was Elena". And I was just an observer for four months, experiencing members of the human rights organizations I was accompanying have members disappeared or found in mass graves. Mrs. Hiltebrand sta ...more
Apr 07, 2010 rated it really liked it
When I first started this memoir, I was put off by the awkward, overwrought language of the opening chapter, but as the story progressed, the writing became more natural, less labored, and I found myself hooked. The author bravely presents herself, warts and all, as she suffers the trials and tribulations of 2 years in Guatemala, serving in the Peace Corps. She starts out as a naive, underprepared novice and grows into a strong and resilient woman who overcomes many challenges. I enjoyed the aut ...more
Jun 01, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This was a very well written and interesting memoir of a young womans two years as a volunteer in the Peace Corps in Guatemala along with her dog Cali a young German Shepard she had picked up in Guatemala city
She had a lot of both wonderful and not so wonderful experiences, during her time there.
When she first got to Guatemala her fellow Peace Corps volunteers bet that she would be the first to fail and leave early, but she ended up proving them wrong.
What made this memoir unusual for me was th
Oct 29, 2012 rated it it was ok
Urbani is a talented writer, but as a PCV I found her story-telling kind of offensive... every other chapter was written from the point of view of a person from her site, describing perceptions of her that very well could have been wrong. I was waiting for some sort of Acknowledgement or postscript about interviews with these people or some basis for how she put words in their mouths, but nothing. There is also very little explanation as to why she switched sites at least two times, which is ver ...more
Normally a pretty fast reader, but this book stopped me in my tracks--in a good way! Urbani is so eloquent with her prose that every word begs attention and careful consideration. This unconventional memoir, told in the voices of several women, made me laugh and weep and wish I were half as strong as Elena.
Jun 25, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Peace Corps volunteers, travelers, people interested in Central America
I savored this book. It was easy to relate the author's tellings to my own Peace Corps experience. I felt like I could have made some of her statements myself!

I really enjoyed hearing her story and learning about her relationships through the eyes of the people she came to know in Guatemala. Beautifully written.
Feb 15, 2009 rated it really liked it
The most interesting thing about this book was having Ellen Urbani come to our book group. She lives in Portland and is also an art therapist. I never would have chosen this book on my own but am happy to have read it.
This book was so good that as soon as I finished it (crying of course) I turned right back to the first page and started reading it again.
This is the story of Ellen Urbani, privileged American southern girl, who joins the Peace Corp and goes to Guatemala. She may have been wearing Laura Ashley but this is one tough young woman, very smart, persistent, brave and idealistic enough to stay through her whole 2 years working to make things better for the people of Guatemala, especially the children.
Janet Laminack
Dec 07, 2007 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: people interested in Peace Corps
This is a story of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala in the early 1990s. It's the story of an amazing experience! It has moments full of hope and joy, moments of tension and fear, moments of hopelessness, and moments that were hilarious!
Lamec Mariita
Jan 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
It's a wonderful capturing well written book.Ellen's writing is illustrative and it makes you feel you're actually with her.It's an inspirational book studying realities of service in the Peace Corps.
The experience is amazing and the positive difference she made to people there is impressing.
Judy Dudley
Sep 22, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Loved this book. Sad and wonderful all at the same time. I have already read several chapters over again.
Jan 22, 2012 rated it it was ok
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Christine Bachman

A very heartwarming and beautiful story, full of sadness, realities and joy. Elena beautifully demonstrates women's strength and perseverance. Enjoy!
Jane Law
Jan 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating! So well written! Interesting perspective of serving in the Peace Corps.
May 24, 2010 rated it it was amazing
AMAZING! Terrifying, but wonderful. Definitely one to read & enjoy!
I thought this was an interesting book, and I would have rated it higher if not for the fictional thoughts the author gave to the woman she met while in the peace corps. Frankly, I found her obvious self-praise a little off-putting and obnoxious.

I also felt that the author was not open about her transfers and why they happened, it seems like we finished the book without getting the full picture of her experiences. I give her credit for finishing her commitment, but I wish she was more forthcomi
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