Shirley Nelson

credit: Scott Nelson

The Risk of Returning

A novel, in collaboration with Rudy Nelson. Scheduled printing, Summer, 2013, the Troy Book Makers.

Ted Peterson, age forty, returns to Guatemala, his early home, to determine the cause of his father’s disappearance, and finds himself entangled in a culture of violence. But he finds a lot more there, as well—overwhelming beauty, and courage and celebration, and the surprise of unexpected love.

The book has a double by-line, but this is not your every day collaboration. It started out as Rudy’s, his first trek into fiction, inspired by his first visit to Central America. While still teaching (English Department, University at Albany, N.Y.), he completed a draft, felt unsatisfied and invited me into the process. At the time, I was balking at an essay for an anthology, so we exchanged jobs. My intention was not to change the story, which in my eyes had tremendous worth. I figured I would just fiddle around with it a little—maybe change the point of view, and see what happened, then hand it back.

But he didn’t want it back. So I adopted it, though in my mind it remained fully his as much as mine.

Actually, the idea of collaboration has taken on a much wider meaning for us. The aim for the story has been historical accuracy, but without the sacrifice of fictional freedom—far harder than either of us dreamed. We continued research with further visits to the country, read everything about Guatemala we could find, and sought the help of people who lived and worked there. So the book belongs to many people, and that in itself has been an adventure.

Early Comments

“A fantastic book.  It perfectly conveys the shifting shadows of the time and place, of knowing and not knowing, of who is a friend and who is not, of realities that come and go, that may or may not be true.”
–Virginia Garrard-Burnett, author of Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit: Guatemala Under General Efraín Ríos Montt

“The real thing, a portrait of a country at war that rings true: murky terror, long silence, intensity, hope.”
–Dennis Smith, PCUSA Regional Liaison, Brazil and Southern Cone

“A luminous, richly layered and beautifully written story about memory and resistance.”
–Gary Dorrien, Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics, Union Theological Seminary

“Full of stir and unfolding, the evocations of place—the landscapes and streetscapes and interiors and even the weathers never mere backdrop but an expansion of the paradoxes of beauty and terror.”
–Eugene Garber, author of O Amazonas Escuro

“A remarkably haunting novel.  I love the characters, especially the narrator, a reluctant and complex guy.  With him we sift through dangerous half-truths, decode sleight of hand, and weigh the fidelity of the people around him.”
–Jeanne Murray Walker, author of Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage through Alzheimer’s

“The Nelsons have written a gripping narrative that explores the tragedy and heroism coexisting within Guatemala’s religious communities.”
–Robert Brenneman, author of Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America

“With this story, the authors remind us of the power of literature to combat political and moral amnesia.  It deserves a place next to the very finest political novels.”
–Chris Robinson, Associate Professor of Political Science, Clarkson University; co-host of Readers and Writers, NCPR Book Show

Selected Works

Fiction
A strong and unusually perceptive portrait of a young girl on the edge of maturity.
Publishers Weekly
Non-fiction/History
...the madness and glory of evangelist Frank Weston Sandford and his followers in rural Maine. (From a Kirkus review.)
Novel
What happens if you go back?

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