A non-fiction book isn’t a novel. Non-fiction is real life, and real life is sloppy, complicated, and sometimes, as in the case of Three Cups of Tea, more far-fetched than fiction. It’s possible that if Greg Mortenson had pitched Three Cups of Tea as a novel to a New York agent his query would have been rejected for being too grandiose.
The thing is, “grandiose” is a word that just doesn’t apply to Mortenson, who spoke on April 1, 2008 to a group of Louisville high school students at the Mohammad Ali Center. He delivered his speech by the light of only the slides he projected on the giant screen; he was soft spoken, but reluctant to use the microphone. And despite the fact that the speech lasted less than an hour, by the end of his time with the students, they were fired up, believers, converts to his mission.
His mission is dictated by a proverb he learned while growing up as a child of missionaries in Africa: “If you educate a boy, you educate an individual. If you educate a girl, you educate a community.”
Since 1993, Mortenson has worked to build more than fifty schools, mostly for girls, in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. He’s raised several million dollars for the efforts, survived crushing personal defeats and failures, conquered two fatwas issued against him, become a sort of folk hero in the regions which he’s helped, provided education for tens of thousands of children who would otherwise go un- or inadequately-educated, started a family of his own, written a book that’s landed on the New York Times best-seller list, and become president of the Central Asia Institute.
I lump his accomplishments of the past fifteen years together to amplify their already massive significance; the cover of the book touts a blurb by Tom Brokaw that reads, “Thrilling… proof that one ordinary person… really can change the world.” But there are times when you’re reading the book when you feel as though you’re watching a B adventure movie; when you, as the audience, have already figured out that the shifty Changazi cannot be trusted to warehouse Mortenson’s building supplies, that the men on horseback have no humanitarian issues in mind, that the little old lady in Atlanta is no benefactress. So often, early on when Mortenson seems to fail more often than he succeeds, you find yourself slamming your fist into your desk as you read, cursing the naiveté of this teddy bear of a trusting man who seems determined to overreach, to dream too big.
The lesson of the book, and the reason people are already speculating about Nobel Prize nominations for this man, is of course that Mortenson didn’t overreach. He may have been foolhardy and overly trusting at times—and one gets the sense that he probably still is—but in the end his original ambitions paled that which he has been able to accomplish.
It’s probably a good thing that Mortenson sought out a co-author, not the least of which because the book wouldn’t have been written. This book that nearly lionizes him features interviews with those in his close company who say that he drives them crazy; when he’s not abroad making things happen, he’s a veritable hermit. But after having seen Mortenson speak, it’s easy to believe that if he’d written the book himself, we’d have an overly humble account of his success.
At the speech, he recounted the story of the beginning of his journey; an avid climber, Mortenson swore that he would summit K2 in 1993 to leave a tribute to his younger sister who’d died of epilepsy. According to Mortenson, he’d failed and it was his failure and his subsequent depression that spurred him to promise the small village that helped rescue and nurse him that he would build a school for them. All fine and true, but students who failed to read the book after seeing the speech would have missed out on the fact that Mortenson failed to summit because he chose instead to save the life of a member of his climbing party who’d been reckless and become ill.
That being said, the coauthor, David Oliver Relin, doesn’t quite do the story justice. At times the story is slow and cluttered; the writing is well organized but artless. It’s such a laborious read at the beginning that by the time the first school is built, you feel quite sure that this is the denouement; a full character arc has crested and settled even though there’s still a full half of the book to scale.
That’s Mortenson’s heroism; any mortal would have settled for the thudding achievement of having built not only a school, but a bridge to the school, in this remote, forsaken region of Pakistan under the shadow of K2. Instead Mortenson parlays this success into greater opportunity to spread education throughout the troubled region.
Even in America, education is the answer—or at least one of the answers—to what ails us. In the Middle East, education may be the route to peace and to our own national security. A boy who is educated is much less likely to be swayed to join a terrorist group; a girl who is educated is less likely to become a mother who would sanction her son’s involvement in terror. Women who are educated suffer less infant mortality and are likely to bear fewer children, reducing poverty.
And who better to provide that education? Mortenson was in Pakistan when the planes crashed into the Twin Towers. He left weeks later, but returned just weeks after that to places that had been devastated by American retaliation. As America itself had become the source of so much suffering of so many innocent people, here was an American bringing books and buildings and teachers to ameliorate the foundation of hatred against the West—ignorance.
As the old American proverb goes, “Behind every great man is a great woman,” and Mortenson is no exception. Reading Three Cups of Tea, it’s hard at times to not feel as though the emotional hero of the book is Mortenson’s wife Tara, whom he met and married after just six days. Tara is the Mother Teresa of wives (I can just hear a literary agent saying to Mortenson: “You know, Greg, the novel would be much more believable if you left out the part about visiting Mother Teresa’s body as she lay in state. That’s overkill.” Seriously, the guy, on a whim, gets to visit the dead saint’s body!).
The whole book, at times, feels like overkill, sloppy, complicated, larger-than-life overkill. And that’s the beauty of non-fiction, it sometimes feels like the elaborate lead-up to a monumental tall tale, “Let me tell you the one about the guy who grew up in Africa with a sister with epilepsy who died and then he tried to climb K2 and was rescued by a village… and went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize.”