Random House: Bringing You the Best in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Children's Books
Authors
Books
Features
Newletters and Alerts

Buy now from Random House

See more online stores - Dear Exile

Buy now from Random House

See more online stores - Dear Exile

Dear Exile

    Select a Format:
  • Book
  • eBook

The True Story of Two Friends Separated (for a Year) by an Ocean

Written by Hilary LiftinAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Hilary Liftin and Kate MontgomeryAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Kate Montgomery

eBook

List Price: $9.99

eBook

On Sale: May 26, 2000
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-375-72608-8
Published by : Vintage Knopf
Dear Exile Cover

Bookmark,
Share & Shelve:

  • Add This - Dear Exile
  • Email this page - Dear Exile
  • Print this page - Dear Exile
ABOUT THE BOOK ABOUT THE BOOK
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ABOUT THE AUTHOR
READER'S GUIDE READER'S GUIDE
Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A funny and moving story told through the letters of two women nurturing a friendship as they are separated by distance, experience, and time.

Close friends and former college roommates, Hilary Liftin and Kate Montgomery promised to write when Kate's Peace Corps assignment took her to Africa.  Over the course of a single year, they exchanged an offbeat and moving series of letters from rural Kenya to New York City and back again.

Kate, an idealistic teacher, meets unexpected realities ranging from poisonous snakes and vengeful cows to more serious hazards: a lack of money for education; a student body in revolt.  Hilary, braving the singles scene in Manhattan, confronts her own realities, from unworthy suitors to job anxiety and first apartment woes.  Their correspondence tells--with humor, warmth, and vivid personal detail--the story of two young women navigating their twenties in very different ways, and of the very special friendships we are sometimes lucky enough to find.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

Kwale, May 31

Dear Hilary,

This business of having to write letters to keep up friendships definitely separates the wheat from the chaff. You are the wheat. (That would be the good part?)

Our new neighbor, Mwanamisi, came over last night to show me how to make coconut rice, wali wa nazi. Kate, you say, but you already know how to make coconut rice! Yes, I say, but I don't know how to make friends. So David and I were rushing around trying to make reality match what we had probably said in Kiswahili. (I think we said we'd 'already' cleaned the rice and we 'were doing' laundry.) Mwanamisi arrived midway through the coconut-milk-making process and was chatting with us about how to cook it really well, soft and sweet. As far as I could tell, she was complimenting me on what I had done so far, except there was one little part that I didn't catch, and her tone was less spunky, so I figured I probably didn't put enough salt in or something. But, all in all, I was pretty excited at not being totally incompetent at cooking.

Later, I checked on that verb to figure out what I'd done wrong. Here's what my dictionary said about it. (I mean, I just "haribu"-ed it--how bad could it be, right?) "kuharibu: v. injure, destroy, spoil, damage, ruin, demoralize, spoil work, break up an expedition, devastate a country, cause miscarriage, pervert, corrupt." That's what I did to the rice. Good thing we like potatoes, eh?

Love, Kate


New York City, December 19th

Dear Kate,

I have obeyed my rules and leapt empty-handed into the void. Much as I try to explain to myself that I am in transition and that everything will turn out fine, I'm hardly the happy camper we remember. I'm living at my dad's now. My eyelid has had a twitch ever since I moved in here. It's a delicate fluttering twitch that others don't seem to see, but to me it feels like there's a bird in my head beating itself against the window of my eye. So right now I hardly recognize myself. I wake up in a strange apartment. I hide away my bed and all signs of me.
I commute out of the city--away from all my friends and the places I know--to work at a sterile office at an ill-defined new job in a big, generic office building on a highway in Westchester. I'm just waiting: waiting to accumulate a foundation of knowledge that will get me the right job; waiting to get my own apartment so I can make noise and be a person; waiting to hail a cab and smile at the person getting out and see that stranger again and again.

Most of all right now, I can't wait to live alone. The finances of buying an apartment are impossible, but I'm willing to make adjustments. No long distance service, for example, no food on weekdays, drugstore makeup, factory-second panty hose, found art. I can't wait to acquire "homeowner's insurance." I want to have my stereo going when I fall asleep. I want all the messages to be for me. I want to bring home strangers and store their body parts in my freezer. I want to polyurethane floors and leave the toilet seat up (Oh wait, I'm a girl.) and throw away all the plastic grocery bags, which wouldn't even accumulate anyway since I don't shop. I want the shower to be a hundred percent available. I want to have parties and not clean up.

Oh, and how much do I miss you? Let me count the ways: I miss you like the plague; I miss you because you understand everything I say and because for all I know when I say I see blue everyone else might see green but I'm pretty sure you see blue; I miss you because when you get back you're going to be really different and dirty; I miss you because you are not coming to my Christmas party; I miss you because you are speaking Kiswahili
and I can't and I'm afraid you'll never come home; I miss you as often as I check my voice mail (which is like every minute); I miss you because I don't trust anyone else's sanity (except maybe my brother's); I miss you more than I miss all my stored belongings and with a force that is just a tiny bit less than my desire to find a lifetime companion; I miss you because the park is covered in snow and I haven't been there yet; I miss you because I think you love me unconditionally and I definitely do you. This turned into a love letter, is that so wrong?

Goodbye my dirty friend, goodbye,

Hilary
Hilary Liftin

About Hilary Liftin

Hilary Liftin - Dear Exile

Photo © Marion Ettlinger

Hilary Liftin grew up in Washington, DC. In 1991 she graduated from Yale University, where she was the editor of the Yale Literary Magazine. She has worked in book publishing as an associate editor of nonfiction and literary fiction and as an editorproducer at several websites. She currently develops online products for Muze, a provider of digital information about music, videos and books, in New York City.

Kate Montgomery was raised in Wakefield, Rhode Island. She studied at Yale and Columbia Universiities, and has spent time teaching in both Czechoslovakia and Kenya. Kate has previously co-authored a non-fiction book A Teacher's Guide to Standardized Reading Tests. She is currently on leave from her job as a high school English teacher in Harlem to raise, with her husband David Hackenburg, their new son, Kobi.
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

It is often said that the art of letter writing has disappeared in our high-tech
age. But two women, roommates and best friends in college, devoted themselves to
this "lost art" when one of them, Kate Montgomery, became a Peace Corps volunteer
in rural Kenya, while Hilary Liftin sought her own post-college destiny in New
York City. Their letters, brought together in Dear Exile, form a yearlong
"conversation" that is candid and comforting, much like a personal encounter. The
questions, discussion topics, and suggested reading list that follow invite you
to join their conversation in your reading group, and to add your reflections on
and opinions of some of the themes in the book.

About the Guide

Newly married and full of a desire to make the world a better place, Kate
Montgomery and her husband, Dave, travel to Kenya where, after three months of
language training and cultural studies, they move to various villages to teach
high school. Their temporary homeland offers a breathtaking landscape of volcanic
mountains, grassy plains, and the occasional free-roaming wild animal--but also
an initiation into a way of life steeped in poverty and frightening unsanitary
conditions, a world in which their dedication to teaching is eroded and finally
destroyed by the corruption of officials, the indifference of fellow teachers,
and the explosive anger of students deprived of the basic educational
tools--books, paper, and safe, sound classrooms.

Hilary Liftin is a traveler of sorts, too, but in much more familiar territory.
In New York City trying to find a suitable job, a decent place to live, and a
companion both loving and lovable, Hilary finds the blessings of twenty-something
independence decidedly mixed.  A career path, she discovers, demands learning how
to strike a balance between politics and productivity. Her search for a home
introduces her to grown-up responsibilities like renovations and mortgages--and
exposes her to more than she wants to know about the realities of her New York
City neighbors. And Hilary's love life is far from perfect. From an old friend
who just could be "the one" to a once-rejected but still-tempting lover, and from
a cyberspace stud to a very promising blind date, reality never quite lives up to
Hilary's romantic expectations.

During their year of correspondence, Kate and Hilary struggle to make sense of
their lives, sharing small comforts and asking big questions. Their letters
suggest that we are all at times "exiles," whether we are crossing cultural
boundaries or trying to forge an identity within a tangled network of friends and
family.

About the Author

Hilary Liftin grew up in Washington, DC. In 1991 she graduated from Yale University, where she was the editor of the Yale Literary Magazine. She has worked in book publishing as an associate editor of nonfiction and literary fiction and as an editor/producer at several websites. She currently develops online products for Muze, a provider of digital information about music, videos and books, in New York City.

Kate Montgomery was raised in Wakefield, Rhode Island. She studied at Yale and Columbia Universiities, and has spent time teaching in both Czechoslovakia and Kenya. Kate has previously co-authored a non-fiction book A Teacher's Guide to Standardized Reading Tests. She is currently on leave from her job as a high school English teacher in Harlem to raise, with her husband David Hackenburg, their new son, Kobi.

Discussion Guides

1. In Dear Exile, Kate's and Hilary's stories unfold in their letters to
one another. How does the immediacy of letters, in contrast to a straight
narrative, affect your experience as a reader? Did you empathize with one woman
more than the other? Did your feelings change during the course of the book?

2. Hilary says she "was afraid that Kate would disappear into married life, and
she actually did disappear, almost right away . . . when the newlyweds joined the
Peace Corps and went to Kenya" [p. 5]. Is Hilary only concerned about the
physical separation? Are her fears about losing Kate realized to any extent, or
do the friends maintain the closeness they enjoyed before Kate married? Would
their relationship have been different if Hilary had not been so fond of Dave?

3. During her first weeks in Kenya, Kate writes, "I'm beginning to feel
generally disoriented" [p. 16]. Are Kate's feelings an inevitable reaction to
being in a foreign environment? How do the perceptions of the local people affect
her perception of herself? In response, Hilary writes about her new job, saying,
"So right now I hardly recognize myself" [p. 18]. Is Hilary's feeling of
disorientation as understandable as Kate's?

4. Hilary feels like a guest in her father's house, admitting, "I would never
feel the need to be so cautious and polite and adult if I were staying with my
mother" [p. 20]. Kate is taken under the wings of older women in the villages she
and Dave live in during their stay in Kenya. Discuss the role that bonds between
women play in Dear Exile, comparing and contrasting their importance in Kenyan
culture and American culture. In what ways are the lives of women in Kenya
similar to the lives of women in America?

5. Except for Dave's short notes at the end of Kate's letters, the men in Dear
Exile
are seen only through the eyes of two women. What are your impressions of
the men Hilary discusses in her letters: her close friend, Josh Stack; her
brother, Steven; Jason, her old boyfriend; and William Strong, the doctor she
falls in love with? How do Hilary's romantic notions influence her reactions to
men?

6. When she arrives in Ramisi, Kate writes, "For the time being, Kenya has
totally kicked both of our butts" [p. 40]. What adjustments--both practical and
psychological--help her feel more at home? What does she mean when she says "my
feeling of independence is really not from deprivation but actually from
privilege and wealth. I can feel lighter, relieved of the load of a life of
luxury" [p. 45]?

7. In several letters, Hilary makes wry observations about the differences
between her life as a single woman [p. 52] and the lives of couples [p. 64]. In
your opinion, do her assessments reflect only her personal experiences or are
they valid in a more universal sense? To what extent do they stem from her
admiration and even envy for Kate's and her brother's marriages?

8. Kate is very unsettled by the atmosphere in Kenyan schools--from the rigid
style of teaching to the acceptance of harsh physical punishment. Are Kate's
expectations about what she can accomplish as a Peace Corps teacher unrealistic?
Is her idealism a privilege that only can be enjoyed by well-educated,
"comfortable" people? Do you think her unwillingness to accept local standards of
behavior is right or wrong? How do you feel about her statement that "it's all
about what a person is raised to believe, it could all be called culture, but I
wasn't raised to believe this, and I can't be open-minded about it" [p. 73]?

9. When the Peace Corps reports that the drinking water in Ramisi is unfit for
human consumption, only Kate and Dave take the news seriously. Kate says, "It's
tricky to be telling people that their ways aren't good enough. I don't know if
they don't want to hear it from us whites, if they don't want to contest 'God's
will,' or if they just don't care" [p. 69]. Do Kate and Dave--and Peace Corps
volunteers in general--have an obligation to teach basic rules of sanitation
which would lessen the incidence of disease and death despite the resistance of
the local people?

10. Hilary worries that she is caving in to the standards of American office and
beauty cultures. Is renouncing the promises she made in college--"never to wear
panty hose or painful shoes, never to have manicures . . . or pay more than
twenty dollars for a haircut or carry a purse" [p. 78]--a necessary part of
becoming a "grown-up"? Do these outward signs of change mean that she is being
untrue to herself?

11. What was your reaction to Hilary's sexual adventures in cyberspace? Do
you think she should have continued the virtual affair once she discovered that
she knew her chat-room lover? Do you think they should have pursued their
relationship in real life?

12. At Kwale High, the second village school Kate and Dave are sent to,
conditions are just as bad as the conditions in Ramisi schools. Have Kate's
attitudes about the canings and verbal assaults--integral parts of African
education--changed in any way during her nine months in Kenya? Do you think that
her fellow teachers' image of "American schools full of weapons, violence, and
disrespect for authority" [p. 119] justifies their dismissal of Kate's teaching
style? How would you respond to their claims that treating children severely in
school is a natural, necessary extension of the traditions set at home?

13. Kate and Dave meet a volunteer who has thoroughly assimilated to the Kenyan
way of life [p. 120]. Is his approach to living in a foreign country more
appropriate than Kate's and Dave's? Is his willingness to embrace the negative
aspects of the culture morally reprehensible?

14. Kate compares the exorcism in Kwale to the Salem witch trials, yet the witch
doctor's rituals do cure the "curse" on the young girls. How do you explain the
success of these ancient rites? How would similar problems with adolescent girls
be treated in this country?

15. What do Hilary's weird neighbors--the woman upstairs who moves furniture in
the middle of the night and the man downstairs who screams frightening
threats--as well as some of her less successful dates, represent in the context
of the book? What insights do Hilary's reactions to them reveal about her ability
to cope with the real world? Do you sympathize with Hilary's fears and
uncertainties, or do they seem trivial in comparison to Kate's? Why yes or no?

16. Kate remains on the sidelines as the tensions at school mount and eventually
escalate into violence. Should she have taken a more active role--either in
dealing with the "powers that be" or with the students themselves? As part of the
community, was it really possible for her to be an "innocent bystander"?

17. Kate and Dave decide to leave Kenya because they don't have the spirit and
energy to move to another village. Do you think they could have adapted by
drawing lessons from their experiences and developing new attitudes? What
experiences have you had with culture clashes? Discuss how--and if--it is
possible to adjust to another culture without betraying personal values.

18. Dear Exile ends with a postscript and an epilogue by the letter
writers. How do these finishing touches enhance the impressions you formed of
each woman through their letters? Which woman changed more during their year
apart?

19. Do you think the intimacy Kate and Hilary developed as correspondents will be
sustained now that they live in the same city? Does writing letters offer
opportunities for introspection and honesty that can't be matched in telephone
conversations and face-to-face encounters?


Your E-Mail Address
send me a copy

Recipient's E-Mail Address
(multiple addresses may be separated by commas)

A personal message: