EDUCATION

Book review: 'Stones into Schools' by Greg Mortenson

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By Jay Mathews
Sunday, December 20, 2009

STONES INTO SCHOOLS

Promoting Peace with Books,

Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan

By Greg Mortenson

Viking. 420 pp. $26.95

Greg Mortenson's first book, "Three Cups of Tea," was a gravity-defying, wide-screen, wilderness adventure. It began with the author's failed attempt to climb the world's second-highest mountain. It included a daring rescue, a bonding with an alien tribe in a tiny cliffside village and his establishment of several dozen schools in Taliban territory despite being kidnapped and threatened with death.

That book, which came out in 2006, was a publishing-industry cliffhanger, too. Mortenson hated the subtitle Penguin insisted on: "One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism One School at a Time." It sold nicely in hardcover, enough to merit a paperback edition and to persuade the publisher to insert Mortenson's preferred subtitle: "One Man's Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time."

Mortenson was a nobody, the son of an American missionary in Africa. He had been a medic in the U.S. Army and gotten degrees in nursing and chemistry from the University of South Dakota. He had not even written the book. His co-author, journalist David Oliver Relin, had constructed the story with Mortensen in the third person. But the hero was tall, good-looking, dynamite on the lecture circuit and outrageously persistent. The paperback swept college campuses, picked up worldwide interest and surpassed sales of 3.4 million copies.

There is no way its sequel, "Stones Into Schools," can repeat that marketing miracle. It is, for one thing, not as well written as "Three Cups of Tea." Relin has moved on to other projects. Mortenson is listed as the sole author, giving credit to two writers, Mike Bryan and Kevin Fedarko, in the acknowledgements. If the first book was inspirational, the second sometimes reads like an infomercial. Mortenson recounts in detail all the good that has been done because of the notoriety and generosity inspired by the first book, and how much more money he needs to keep his remote schools going. Instead of Pamir Range terrors, we have scary bouts of exhaustion after too many speeches and dinners in Pennsylvania.

Still, few new books are as well-timed as "Stones Into Schools." Mortenson is the author of the most popular recent account of a part of the world at the center of American foreign policy. His views will influence how voters react to President Obama's efforts in Afghanistan.

However distasteful he finds the word "terrorism," Mortenson makes no secret of his disgust with the Taliban. The heroes of this book are 14 riders, loaded with AK-47s, their horses "short legged and shaggy and iridescent with sweat," who came across the Irshad Pass to Pakistan in 1999 and begged Mortensen to build a school in their remote part of Afghanistan. The school was built, and at the end of that struggle the author saw their triumph as a path to peace for all.

"They had raised a beacon of hope that called out not only to the Kirghiz themselves, but also to every village and town in Afghanistan where children yearn for education, and where fathers and mothers dream of building a school whose doors will open not only to their sons but also to their daughters," Mortenson writes, "including -- and perhaps especially -- those places that are surrounded by a ring of men with Kalashnikovs who help to sustain the grotesque lie that flinging battery acid into the face of a girl who longs to study arithmetic is somehow in keeping with the teachings of the Koran."

After some initial reluctance, he embraces the U.S. military as part of the effort to bring education to children so unimaginably far from civilization. Soldiers provide personal donations and transportation of materials for some of his projects. But Mortenson puts most of his faith in the Afghanis themselves, particularly those who persuaded him to build more schools. He says they can crush the Taliban and overcome the country's old cultural biases against educating girls.

Mortenson may be unrealistic, but the last decade of his life has been one improbability after another. It is unfair to expect him to lose hope now. He wants the United States to stay and help his friends save their country. He's on a roll, and he doesn't see why he can't carry everyone else with him.

Jay Mathews is The Post's education columnist. His most recent book is "Work Hard. Be Nice: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America."


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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