When I first picked up Three Cups of Tea, I knew very little about it, other than it was a non-fiction book about a man who built schools for girls somewhere in the Middle East. I wasn’t sure how the tea fit into the story, or why there were three cups of it.
The full title is: Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace – One School at a Time. Or, at least that is the title that appears on the trade paper version (which is what I picked up). In the back of the book, there is an acknowledgement section, which was written in two parts. One part was written by Relin, and one was by Mortenson. In Mortenson’s part, there is a paragraph that reads:
A special thanks to Viking Penguin editor, Paul Slovak, who worked diligently to guide this paperback edition to completion, and for patiently heeding our multiple requests to change the hardcover subtitle version of “One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations … One School at a Time” to the present Penguin paperback subtitle, “One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time.”
Sure enough, the hardback really did have the subtitle of “One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations… One School at a Time”.
I didn’t know about the subtitle change until after I’d finished reading the book. Like I said before, I didn’t know much of anything about the book before I started reading it. In the time between when I made my decision that this would be the next book I’d read, and when I actually got around to reading it, I came across news that one of the authors, David Oliver Relin, had died.
The LA Times reported this news on December 3, 2012, in an article titled ‘Three Cups of Tea’ co-author David Oliver Relin dead of suicide”. He died from “blunt force trauma to the head” in a suicide. David Oliver Relin was 49.
The timing of this news, and the timing of when I finally got around to reading Three Cups of Tea meant that the LA Times article caught my attention. To make a long story short, it appears that one potential motivation behind Relin’s suicide was an investigative report that Jon Krakauer published in April of 2011. The report was called “Three Cups of Deceit”.
Jon Krakauer, as you may know, is the author of several books including Eiger Dreams and Into Thin Air. Krakauer began mountaineering when he was 8 years old. (His father introduced him to it). This is a man that knows quite a bit about mountain climbing.
Therefore, when Krakauer said, in his report: The first eight chapters of ‘Three Cups of Tea’ are an intricately wrought work of fiction presented as fact., and you flip through the book and realize that the first three chapters focus on Greg Mortenson’s experience of being lost in the mountains somewhere in Pakistan’s Karakoram, Krakauer’s words hold some significance.
Being lost, and then accidentally finding his way to a small village (where the people welcomed him and saved his life) is what inspires Mortenson to promise to return and build the village a school. If that part of the story was “an intricately wrought work of fiction”, then it brings up the question: How much of this book is truth and how much is fabricated?
Krakauer’s report went on:
And by no means was this an isolated act of deceit. It turns out that Mortenson’s books and public statements are permeated with falsehoods. The image of Mortenson that has been created for public consumption is an artifact born of fantasy, audacity, and an apparently insatiable hunger for esteem.
Krakauer also questions how the millions of dollars that Mortenson raised for his charity, the Central Asia Institute, were managed.
He also compares Three Cups of Tea to the book A Million Little Pieces, which was written by James Frey. I read that book around the time that it first came out and was classified as a non-fiction memoir.
Later, when it was discovered that the book was not as factual as people had been led to believe, there was outrage! (It’s still an interesting read though, in my opinion). In short, Krakauer pretty much ripped into Greg Mortenson (and his book that was co-authored by David Oliver Relin) and publicly called into question the veracity of Three Cups of Tea.
That must have been difficult for David Oliver Relin to hear. He wrote the introduction to the book, and it is clear that he greatly admired Greg Mortenson and the work he did building schools in Pakistan. Although Krakauer’s report focuses on attacking Mortenson, it appears that perhaps Relin took it to heart. I found this to be extremely sad.
It was with this information in mind that I began reading Three Cups of Tea. The first couple of chapters, where Mortenson is lost in the mountains, felt real enough to me (a person who knows absolutely nothing about climbing mountains or Pakistan). The descriptions of how cold it was at that altitude inspired me to burrow under several blankets as I was reading the book. It was written well enough to make me “feel” the cold. That being said, I’m going to presume that Krakauer, an expert, knows what he’s talking about.
There are some pages in the center of the Trade Paper version of the book that show some of the people that Mortenson befriended in Pakistan. A couple of photos show the schools which were built by his organization. I believe the people existed, and that at least a couple of schools did, too. My hope is that many girls, who would have otherwise gone completely without access to education, were able to receive it through Mortenson’s schools. That is so important!
Overall, I found the story to be really interesting. The descriptions of how the people dressed, what they ate, and the significance of being offered a cup of tea opened up a new world to me. It was like reading an extremely well written “case study” from one of the Anthropology courses I took as a college student. Everything about the culture of the villages that Mortenson visited, from the way they heated their homes, to the way they shared their living spaces, was fascinating to me. How much of this was factual? I’ve no idea.
Another part of the book that stood out to me was the latter portion. Greg Mortenson was in Pakistan (I think. He was in that part of the world, anyway.) on September 11, 2001. His friend woke him up from a much needed night’s sleep to tell him “A village called New York has been bombed.”
What follows are descriptions of how some Americans that were over there working with Mortenson managed to get out of the country and back to the United States. From there, the book goes into stories about news reporters from several countries flooding into the area, searching for a story, and gathering at this huge hotel in one of the towns. The confluence of reporters, hoping to find a good story to send home, was referred to as “the Circus”. I’ve heard, and read, many American’s stories about where they were on 9/11. This book brings a different perspective on what that time was like for people who were over there.
Overall, I liked Three Cups of Tea (despite not being sure what parts were true and what parts were fabricated). The book has some very heavy subject matter, and includes a lot of information about the different groups of people who lived in the area that Mortenson visited. It isn’t an easy read that one would take on vacation and read on the beach.
I wouldn’t recommend that an Anthropology student select this book as a “case study” for a homework assignment or report, considering that the veracity has been questioned. To be honest, this is a book that I have no desire to re-read. However, I am glad that I did read it. Whether it was truth, fiction, or somewhere in between, doesn’t change the fact that the book was interesting enough to hold my attention through to the end of the story.
This book review of Three Cups of Tea – by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin is a post written by Jen Thorpe on Book of Jen and is not allowed to be copied to other sites.