‘1969: A Year in Tonga. Book 1: Becoming a Volunteer’ is Roger Cowell’s first book dedicated to his one-year-long stay in the Kingdom of Tonga, where he served as a volunteer in the late 1960s.
Interested in other countries and cultures, 17-year-old Roger decides to apply for selection as a school-leaver teacher with New Zealand’s Volunteer Service Abroad. After getting through the interviews and completing the required training, he is prepared to leave his home and spend a year in a foreign land.
Equipped with basic instructions, one bag, and a cricket bat, Roger finally sets out on his adventure. He lands in Tonga, where he is introduced to his host family, and immediately begins the great journey of discovery. He gets to know the many wonders of the kingdom and the way of life of its inhabitants. But most of all, he gets ready to teach.
This is a good book, pure and simple. Roger Cowell definitely knows how to interest readers and grab their attention from the very first sentence. His memoir lets you travel back in time – in a split second you leave the digital world behind and find yourself in the late 1960s, where cell phones are non-existent, immediate deliveries unavailable, and instant communication not yet invented. He managed to revive the old days and, I must say, he did it amazingly well.
Of course, the book is not just a chronicle of the past. It is also the most interesting, the most informative account of one volunteer’s life, which should definitely be read by everyone who considers applying for the service. The author outlines the whole process: from filling in forms and questionnaires to attending interviews and courses to leaving New Zealand and reaching his final destination. You may think such delineations make the story mundane and dull. Well, they don’t. The chapters containing the descriptions are actually quite absorbing; almost as much as the ones documenting Cowell’s arrival and first days in Tonga.
The South Pacific kingdom… I wish I could say the country plays a central role in the story. Unfortunately, I can’t do that. The memoir does provide some insights into the daily life on the islands, but it is more a general overview than a thorough portrayal. The author focuses on his personal experiences, so if he mentions Tonga, it is always in relation to his engagements. Can this be considered a fault? Absolutely not. Roger Cowell was 18 years old at the time of his service; an innocent, young man with a naive eye, lacking in worldly wisdom. And yet, despite the circumstances, he tried to make discoveries and draw conclusions. His cursory observations give you a vague idea of what it means to live in a ‘tropical paradise’; especially if you come from a distant land. Cowell – like most visitors and travellers – had to deal with a certain set of feelings widely known as culture shock. He describes it at great length, helping readers understand this obscure phenomenon.
The book may not be exceptional in terms of literary expression, but it is a really good read. It’s an extremely enthralling, quite thought-provoking account that not only entertains but also teaches and inspires. I am sure you will enjoy it.