'Hemingway Book Club' tells moving discovery tale

Most people returning to teaching in their 50s don't choose to do so in a country ravaged by war, but Paula Huntley did, and her story, "The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo," makes for gripping, heartbreaking reading.

At its core are the stories of young Kosovars in her English class for whom Hemingway's classic "The Old Man and the Sea" becomes a kind of emotional signpost on their journey back to wholeness. The interweaving of Hemingway's story, the students' narratives of terror and Huntley's own tales of discovery makes for a book that is stirring and nearly impossible to put down.

When her lawyer husband decided to join the American Bar Assn. in helping war-torn Kosovo rebuild its legal system, Huntley trained to teach English as a second language so she could join him there and make her own contribution.

She left behind a comfortable life in San Francisco for a potentially dangerous one among people who had suffered ethnic cleansing and who were now trying to rebuild their lives. To her students, whether teenage or older, learning English could often be a key to helping their impoverished and traumatized families, and emotionally and intellectually connecting with America, a country they admired.

Huntley was anything but naive, yet the realities still shocked her: the devastation, the garbage and pollution, the widespread fear. She was also overwhelmed by people's gratitude toward Americans for the bombing campaign that forced Serbia to stop driving ethnic Albanians from the province. Like other perhaps more nuanced writers on the Balkans (Rebecca West and Roger Kaplan), she quickly discovered that centuries-old battles and prejudices informed everyone's consciousness.

It's hard not to be moved by the depth of affection Huntley feels for her students, who had suffered so much, and by the appeal of a novel like Hemingway's connecting to such an unlikely audience.

Huntley admits that she wasn't able to fully integrate the stories of Kosovar minorities such as the Roma (Gypsies). She also might have done more to explain the visceral hold of Kosovo on the Serbian imagination. However, none of that vitiates the power of this story of one person making an enormous difference in the world.

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