The Tongan Peace Corps Murder, Now in Fiction

Having spent months in Tonga, I’m not entirely surprised by the latest videos of Nuku’alofa in flames. It’s a sleepy South Pacific capital, and there’s always a lot of feeling rumbling underneath the placidity.

My main Tonga interest is the Peace Corps murder of 1976, and there’s news: the publication of former Peace Corps volunteer Jan Worth’s novel Night Blind, which chronicles a young volunteer’s response to the murder, in fictionalized terms. I ‘m excited because the historical case has never got the attention it deserves and Worth’s book will bring more light on a gross injustice. And Night Blind is a beautiful book. It deals with issues of 70s sexuality in spiritual, non-nostalgic ways, and tells a great story while it’s at it.

The story involves the awakening of young Charlotte Thornton as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tonga, and the backdrop is the murder of volunteer Melanie Porter, allegedly by Mort Friedman. The tale is inspired by the murder of Deb Gardner (by Brooklynite Dennis Priven) in 1976.

Frank Bevacqua, a good friend of Gardner’s, says that Worth’s description of the way the murder affected her is “hauntingly well done and will probably conjure eerily similar feelings to any reader who was there at the time.” (Not that it heals the wound for him. “It’s been thirty years, but closure comes about in very personal ways over any period of time that it may take.”)

Meantime, I asked the author about her book party last week, and here’s her report:

We held it at Pages Bookstore in Downtown Flint — a plucky little indie bookstore on a corner by the Torch Bar and Grille– and we packed the place and sold a lot of books. An article that ran in the Flint Journal Saturday about me and the book brought a lot of old acquaintances out of the woodwork — people I’d worked with when I was a social worker in the 80s here in Flint, for example. Also, my dear buddies poet and essayist Tom Lynch (the Irish mortician) and Keith Taylor drove up from Ann Arbor, which meant a lot. In what feels like early, gloomy winter here, my impression is people really want and need a good story, especially one about love, sex and murder in a far away Polynesian place.

Somebody asked what was the grip of this story for me, so many years in the making. I’d never
answered that one before, and it came out something like this: I have been compelled by the fate of sexually bold women. What is the significance of unabashed desire and unselfconscious sensuality? What comes of a “woman like that” — as I have Charlotte say somewhere. And of course, it all has something to do with craving, with “what a woman
wants” and what happens if she gets it and if she doesn’t. I said something like, it was important to me to have a plot in which on top of the aftershocks of the murder of one “sexually bold woman,” Charlotte meets up with the love of her life, doesn’t get him, and
feels nonetheless that the world is essentially beautiful.