Women don’t have mid-life crises the way men do, at least in the stereotypical view of middle age. And, perhaps, Joyce Major’s is not so much a story of personal calamity, but an attempt to broaden her personal horizons to avoid such potential crisis. Whatever the true motivation for writing her story, there is much to be said for her kind of escapism.
Smiling at the World provides the reader with an in-depth personalized view of Joyce’s trip around the world to “find herself.” (Alternatively, perhaps, to lose herself?) Her goal is to visit strange and unusual places around the world as both a traveler and a volunteer. Leaving her Seattle home and taking only a minimal amount of clothing and personal items, Joyce begins her trip with an interesting volunteer restoration project in Italy. Planning to stay in most of her destinations a month or so, she deliberately chose a funky, soup-to-nuts kind of itinerary – building restoration in Italy, lions in South Africa, kangaroos in Australia, elephants in Thailand, and a writing gig in Ireland are only half of the surroundings and adventures she has selected for herself.
It is a little awkward to read her thoughts, opinions and experiences sometimes, since mixed with her travel, volunteer escapades and strange selection of locales is a rather intimate look at her love life during this time. Joyce seems to be trying to reaffirm her attractiveness now that she is in her late 50’s, and the men she meets and connects with provide an almost embarrassing glimpse of how she is struggling with sexual feelings and concerns about her future. In addition, some of the volunteer opportunities she decided on prove to be shoddily operated, with little or no accountability, decent staffing or adequate food. In spite of these unexpected dramas, she remains mostly upbeat, and eager to try the next outing on her list.
Often the oldest volunteer at her volunteer spots, she relishes her relationships with the younger college co-eds she encounters, taking on a motherly approach as she remembers the sons she left behind in college. Her friendliness and outgoing spirit are hard to dampen, although she sometimes lapses into too much introspection and detail about the less appealing aspects of each experience. It is remarkable how hard she is willing to work, and how eagerly she takes on onerous tasks, anxious to prove her age is not a liability, wanting to be of true service on the paths she has designated for her volunteering.
Certainly, the reader can respect that dedication, and admire the fact that Ms. Major is willing to go it alone for a year, in completely strange and unknown cultures. She makes friends wherever she goes, and learns a great deal about the world in general, including ecological, environmental and conservation perspectives. She comes to love the varied appeal of lions and elephants, and those who have taken on the permanent jobs of caring for the mistreated, orphaned or weakened animals.
There are quite a few typos and confusing terminology “burps”, but because of Joyce’s enthusiasm, these don’t seem very annoying or frustrating as they might – it is almost as if in her eagerness to share the beauty and mystery she has encountered, her fingers on the keyboard couldn’t keep up with her tumbling thoughts. It takes great courage to take on volunteer travel as a form of eco-tourism and to become a first-time writer in chronicling these experiences. It is admirable and noteworthy that the things Joyce experienced were worth her time and trouble, and that she wants to share that many-tentacled experience with her readers. If you have ever wanted to consider this form of travel and its world-view-broadening encounters, Joyce Major’s book is a great place to find out what one woman’s perspective is, and how to find your own “voluntourism” happenings.
Editor's note: An agent of Alegro Publishing made the following comments concerning the curledup.com review of Smiling at the World:
"With such a negative almost angry review of Smiling at the World, we looked at the link to see if we could gain some insight into the reviewer but she is not listed. Perhaps she is not a regular reviewer of books? As this is by far the worst review "Smiling at the World"
has received, we at Alegro Publishing request that this not be published on your site. It serves no purpose, is rather wordy and after many positive reviews we don't feel it is an accurate review.
USA Book News in their 2008 National Best books just awarded the book the Winner in the travel division. Thank you for removing it from your site."
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