There were so many places where Will McGrath could have gone wrong with his memoir, “Everything Lost Is Found Again: Four Seasons in Lesotho.” After all, it’s the story of how he and his wife — a young white couple from the United States — lived for a year in a small African nation. His narrative could easily have devolved into a do-gooder story of the Great White Hope type; or a navel-gazing coming-of-age-in-an-exotic-locale confession.
But “Everything Lost Is Found Again” is neither of those. It is a wonderful book, keenly observed, a breezy, thought-provoking read in which McGrath and his wife, Ellen Block, live and work in this small country that hardly anyone has heard of. They throw themselves wholeheartedly into life in Lesotho — they make friends, work at their jobs, go to parties, take hikes, play with children and mourn the deaths of people they have grown to love.
It is all so wonderfully normal. And it is all so wonderfully fascinating.
Lesotho is a small mountainous country, entirely surrounded by South Africa. It has the second-highest rate of AIDS in the world, which is what brought them there — Block is a cultural anthropologist (currently teaching at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.), studying AIDS and orphan care. She went to Lesotho to do research, and McGrath (currently a freelance writer and MFA candidate at Hamline University in St. Paul) went with her, landing work as a teacher.
The book is written as a series of essays grouped by season and drawn primarily from 2008-09, when they were there for 12 months, living in a thatched-roof hut. It’s a joyous, surprising, sometimes funny book, although the cloud of AIDS hangs over many chapters. In one essay, McGrath writes about a group of men gathered in front of a carpenter’s shop, playing a homemade board game with unfathomable rules and old bottle caps as tokens. It’s an amusing scene, except for this line: “Today they’re building children’s coffins.”
He is scrupulously careful not to make judgments of the people or their culture, and when terrible things happen, he recounts them but does not condemn — such as grown men meting out a kind of biblical eye-for-an-eye justice with heavy sticks, or schoolchildren beaten for small transgressions.
The people he writes about — other teachers, students, elderly mountain people who sell bootleg alcohol, shepherds, random children — are sharply and affectionately drawn. In Lesotho, he notes, “everyone holds hands here. Everyone touches. Men with men, women with women. … It is not uncommon for a stranger to take your hand as he walks beside you, asking where you are going or what has brought you to Lesotho.”
Children, when their funny bone is struck — such as when they see that Ellen is driving the motorcycle and her husband is hanging on, and not the other way around — laugh easily, “in waves that knock them to the ground.”
McGrath is a likable, curious guide, embracing whatever adventures come along, such as slaughtering a pig, chopping wood for a funeral and trekking off into the hills (guided by children) to find dinosaur footprints.
Since 2009, McGrath and Block have been back to Lesotho twice, for months each time. But that first extended visit was magical, for them and for readers. “We did not know how joyful it all would be,” he writes. “We could not have guessed.”
Everything Lost Is Found Again
By: Will McGrath.
Publisher: Dzanc Books, 220 pages, $16.95.
Event: 8 p.m. Dec. 13, Giddens/ Alumni Learning Center, Hamline University, St. Paul.