vid portrait of a time of flux in an ancient country, Peter Hessler's River Town is a moving account of his experiences as a foreigner or waiguoren in small-town China. Hessler, who spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in a city called Fuling, a Yangtze River town in southwestern China, taught English and American literature at Fuling Teachers College, and the classroom provides the backdrop for many of the events that comprise his impressive first book. Hessler provides lucid narration of his time at the college, recounting moments of humor and gravity in wonderful, precise detail. Many of his shy, eager students are of the peasant stock that populates the remote countryside, and some of them have taken on American names. His classes contain a male student named Daisy, as well as a young woman who calls herself Keller, in honor of Helen Keller. Teaching always a reciprocal process is especially so in this case, as eye-opening for Hessler as it is for his pupils. Preoccupied with politics, the young people are diehard Communists, and party rhetoric invades analyses of Hamlet and Robin Hood. With the finesse of a great teacher, Hessler manages to steer his students in more appropriate directions. "I wasn't so enthusiastic about Shakespeare's becoming a party spokesman," he writes.
Mixed in with Hessler's account of his teaching duties in Fuling are history-making events like the return of Hong Kong to the control of the mainlaind Chinese government and the death of Deng Xiaoping. Blending these momentous happenings with everyday incidents, Hessler delivers a balanced look at his time as a stranger in a strange land. In the end, for the author, the townspeople become a source of both animosity and support. While he experiences regular heckling because he is a foreigner, Hessler also makes friends among the restaurateurs whose establishments he frequents. He even spends the night before Chinese New Year with the family of one of the restaurant owners. "They knew that I was alone on the holiday, and I was their friend; nothing else mattered," Hessler writes. "They were simply big-hearted people and that was the best meal I ever had in China."Eliza McGraw writes from Maryland.