The Taste of Many Mountains, by Bruce Wydick (Thomas Nelson, 2014)
A team of graduate students from California travel to Guatemala to trace coffee beans from site of origin to final destination, identifying the profit at each stage. Their questions: Does globalization make things better or worse? Does Fair Trade actually help the farmers? What about organic certification? And if the coffee industry is booming, why are the farmers living at subsistence level—or below it?
Their findings might surprise you.
This book is fiction, but it’s based on an actual assignment given by the author to some of his students. Many of their experiences made it into the novel. The author’s stated purpose is to share the findings of this study in a more engaging manner than a dry report. To that end, he succeeds.
It’s very fact-heavy, and although those facts come out in the sort of natural dialogue that graduate students would have about such things, this average reader confesses to skimming some of those sections. There’s far more information than a casual reader is ready to process. As such, the novel might be best suited to entry-level students in the areas of international trade and development, economics or global studies.
Angela and Alex and their teammates are engaging, original characters, although somewhat overshadowed by the novel’s focus. The reading level is often higher than fiction readers expect, for example, “Governments at peace with their people are much alike, but genocidal governments are each maleficent in their own way.” [p. 1] Personally, this language level is a pleasing stretch for me until it hits the details of areas of study.
There’s some fine description, though: “The sun rose in the sky and as the shadows grew shorter, the line of sweat down the middle of Fernando’s back grew longer, reaching down toward his belt.” [p. 49] And the author includes just enough Spanish to flavour the dialogue without losing non-Spanish speakers like me.
A few of the characters are Christian, and faith occasionally comes into their discussions, but in a natural, non-preachy way.
I love the cover of this book. It suits the story perfectly, down to the burlap background reminiscent of the bags that transport so many coffee beans. I learned from my reading that high-end beans are now shipped in vacuum-sealed plastic, but that wouldn’t make for such a good visual. Plus, the beans likely still leave the coffee farmer in the traditional burlap.
The Author’s Note proves that Bruce Wydick is a fine and engaging writer of non-fiction. He has created interesting characters and a plot with nicely-interwoven subplots. As many novelists do, he wrestles with complex truths that the wider world needs to hear. I think this book was a great idea, but what it needed was a co-writer to make the fiction shine (and a willingness to go much lighter on the facts so that readers could absorb the ones highlighted).
Author Bruce Wydick is a professor at the University of San Francisco (economics and international studies).
[A review copy was received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I was in no way compensated for this review.]