Sleuthing a Writer's Skills
Students will closely examine the author's lively text to determine how she achieved her many literary effects.
About the Story
Solomon tells about a cross-country journey by train in Kazakhstan from the capital, Almaty, in the south, to her host city of Kokshetau, in the northern part of the country. In vivid detail, she describes the crowds in the station and on the train, the stifling heat in the coach, the bustle, the generosity of the Kazakhstanis, the desolation of the landscape, and the endearing qualities of a journey that appears on the surface to be merely arduous.
Note about teaching: This lesson concentrates on the author's writing techniques; as such, it is ideal for language arts classes. However, social studies teachers who are teaching about the post-Soviet era will find in Solomon's letters rich primary-source material for students to investigate—along with related issues in John Deever's chapter about his Volunteer experiences in Ukraine (see "Mr. John and the Day of Knowledge").
About the Setting
Covering 1.1 million square miles, Kazakhstan is the ninth-largest country in the world, about the size of Western Europe or half the size of the contiguous United States. Kazakhstan is a vast country of desert, steppe, and mountains in Central Asia. About 17 million people live there in an area four times the size of Texas.
Kazakhstan was the second-largest republic of the Soviet Union. Upon the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., Kazakhstan declared its independence in December 1991. The first Peace Corps Volunteers arrived in the country in July 1993, and Volunteers have been there since, working with communities to make the transition from communism to a free-market economy. In collaboration with government ministries, local governments, and nongovernmental organizations, Peace Corps Volunteers in Kazakhstan work in four program areas: English education, economic development, environmental education, and public health.
In addition to their assigned tasks, Peace Corps Volunteers engage in cross-cultural exchanges that help Americans and Kazakhstanis better understand each other's history, languages, and cultures. Indeed, given Kazakhstan's isolation from the West when it was part of the Soviet Union, Peace Corps Volunteers often have been the first Americans that Kazakhstanis encounter. The first meetings between Peace Corps Volunteers and Kazakhstanis often provide an opportunity for Volunteers to break the stereotypes Kazakhstanis might have about Americans—and vice versa. Americans and Kazakhstanis can represent their respective countries in a more positive and realistic light than stereotypes usually do.
For further information about Kazakhstan, visit the country-information section of the Peace Corps website at www.peacecorps.gov.
- To stimulate reflection about the enduring understanding, "Living as the local people do is an effective way to understand a culture different from one's own."
- To discover the author's techniques in describing people and events, in setting tone, and in establishing pace.
- Wrench: To grab forcefully
- Devushka:: Young girl (a term used by a stranger to address a young woman)
- Tenge:: [ten-GAY] Local currency. Two hundred tenge equaled roughly US$1.35.
- Steppe: Grassland; plain; prairie
- Hobbled: Hampered or hindered
- Hefting: Lifting (a heavy weight)
- Succumb: To give up; fall victim to
- Sweltering: Extremely hot
- Hobble: To walk unsteadily or with a limp
- In preparation for reading Solomon's story, provide students with information about the author and the setting from the background section. In addition, read to the class (or have them read) the information in Resource Sheet 1.
- Have students read "The Train Ride Home." Ask them to keep in mind Solomon's statement, as they are reading: "This country teaches me on a daily basis, sometimes far more than I think I teach people here." When the students are finished, ask them what Solomon learned on this train ride. What do they think she taught her traveling companions, if she taught them anything? Who do they think learned more from the encounters on the train and in the station—Solomon or the local people? Why?
- Solomon's essay is a fast-reading, engaging account of a train ride in a country significantly different from the United States. Students will probably have a good sense of just how different the cultural environment is after reading the essay. Suggest to students that a text that appears simple and easy to read is often the most difficult to write, because it takes so much effort by the author to craft. Much like detectives, students will analyze the text to see how the author achieved her rich characterization of her Central Asian surroundings.Now that the students have begun to analyze the text in detail, what conclusions can they draw about the author's strategy and style? In discussion with the class, try to elicit, among other things, that the author makes every word count; she provides facts and detailed descriptions to help the reader picture the scenes; she makes the story both active—through the details of her interactions with people—and personal—through quotations—attracting readers and holding their interest.
- Have students examine the first paragraph and ask them what purposes it serves. How does it engage the reader? How does it set the scene? [Possible answers include: The lead sentence immediately pulls the reader into the action and sets the scene. The subject of the essay, i.e., a train ride across Kazakhstan, is identified. The reader gets the impression of the bustle and chaos that is characteristic of train stations in Kazakhstan. The quotations give the reader an idea of the independence and assertiveness of the author, along with making the text seem immediate and fresh.]
- Ask the students to examine the second paragraph and identify three things they learn there. [Answers might include: The author is a Peace Corps Volunteer. Peace Corps policy calls for Volunteers to live and travel as the locals do. During the Soviet era, people traveled by air, using a decent network of airports. Air transportation in Kazakhstan has deteriorated.]
- The author has used other subtle strategies to convey information about the climate, the geography, and the nature of the people. In a class discussion or through journal entries, focus with students on the following issues:
- Ask students to identify specific details about the people on the platform and the passengers in the train that help them understand the culture. Also have them search for two or three details that let them know it's cold outside. [Winter boots, fur coats, snow on the ground.]
- The author uses specific details to achieve the transition from the station to the steppe. Ask students to identify these. [Vendors leave, passengers wave, the author settles down, the scenery changes. All these cues are key to helping the reader sense the transition from the city to the steppe.]
- In paragraph seven, which includes the quotation from the Kyrgyz writer Chingis Aitmatov, Solomon names at least four specific places the train passes through. Even if—or especially if—students do not look for these places on the map, what effect does naming them have on the flow and impact of the story? [Students might observe that it lends a sense of place as well as emphasizing the progress across the landscape.]
- In the second-to-last paragraph, Solomon writes: "An old Kazakh grandmother hobbles to the wagon conductor to obtain a blanket for me, concerned that I will catch a cold, although I hardly think that's possible on the sweltering train." Does the author's treatment of the old woman reveal anything about the author's respect for the local population, or about her attitude toward strangers? Point out to students that while the author makes fun of the situation, she notably does not make fun of the old woman. After all, the author might have written: "How could I possibly have caught a cold in that intense heat?" or "Catch a cold?! What was she thinking?!"
- In an interview, Solomon expanded on the issue of the heated train. "In Kazakhstan, cold is viewed as a killer, and people do everything they can to protect themselves from the cold. In the sweaty train car, the Kazakhstani perception was that it wasn't warm enough to keep you healthy. A slight draft coming in the window could be the end of you! Also, the simple fact that there were blankets available told people that they ought to cover up more, despite the heat, which was stifling to me.Volunteers would get dirty looks for cracking open bus windows (even in summer) or for wearing short-sleeved shirts around the house in winter." Ask students, in pairs, to reenact for the class the old woman's offering Solomon the blanket. Encourage them to invent various responses to compare with Solomon's. Ask them also to take into account the Kazakhstani veneration of age. Have some of the students play the role of someone Solomon's age offering a blanket, or even someone younger. In their role playing, how might students alter Solomon's reactions to passengers of different ages offering her blankets?
- In the same paragraph, the author says that the other passengers reached out to her "upon learning that I am far from home." What is the difference in effect between Solomon writing that the others were hospitable because she was "American," and that they were hospitable because she was "far from home"? [Students might observe that Kazakhstani hospitality extends to anyone from another place, not just to someone from a well-recognized country.] Consider holding a class discussion to elicit from students what their own reactions might be to meeting someone with an accent or who evidently was "far from home." Would they share their brown-bagged food? Would they invite the stranger home for tea—as many did with Solomon? After students have offered their own reactions, let them know Solomon's observation after she returned to the United States: "Kazakhstani hospitality knocked me off my feet for the most part, as I was used to the more guarded American reaction to strangers."
- In the last paragraph, Solomon writes: "Inevitably, some of my friends are at the station to greet me." It is easy to gloss over that sentence and miss its implications. Ask the students to think about the sentence, and then discuss specifically why the author uses the word "inevitably." What does that tell students about her life in Kokshetau? [Evidently, she has many friends, and they were eager enough to greet Solomon to come to the station and wait there for her arrival.] Are these friends fellow Peace Corps Volunteers or are they locals? How do we know? [A few sentences further, we learn that "traveling in the train is something they know; it's an old story for them."] Point out that the author didn't tell readers outright; readers have to infer the answer from other information.