She couldn’t stop taking pictures.
They’d only left the airport a half-hour before, and Jenny had already gone through most of a roll of film. Soldiers with rifles, drinking sodas from bulging plastic baggies… a woman in a bright yellow blouse selling giant fruits from a roadside cart… and now, this man in a straw cowboy hat, driving an empty wagon down the road. The wheels were heavy wooden disks, and the animal pulling the wagon was huge. Except for the driver’s red T-shirt, it looked like something out of the Middle Ages.
She stood with her long lens out the window, trying to focus. As the bus passed the wagon, she found herself alongside the animal for just a moment. Its eyes were big as golf balls, and seemed to express complete hopelessness.
“What was that?” someone said.
“An ox, probably.”
“I think it’s a cow with a pituitary problem.”
“Yak yak yak.”
The image in Jenny’s viewfinder shook too much to focus. She put the camera down, and saw the driver whip the animal. The head lowered, but the wagon didn’t move any faster.
Though the crack of the whip made her wince, Jenny held onto her optimism. Before yesterday, she had never flown on a plane, never been further from home than Disneyland. She could hardly believe she was really here, in her grandfather’s country, the place she’d heard about ever since she could remember…
The heat and the bumpy ride made Jenny queasy, and the wind through the open windows was too hot to help. She worried that she would throw up, and then for the rest of the month, instead of being The Short, Flat-Chested Girl With Freckles, she would be The Girl Who Threw Up On the Bus.
Faint in the distance, a cone-shaped mountain rose from the plain. “Ahuacocha,” the driver called back. “El volcán.”
Awe distracted her from the turmoil in her stomach. The volcano was beautiful, and exciting. What she wanted most from this trip was to see things she could never have seen at home, to have experiences that deserved to be called amazing. A volcano was an excellent start.
This book originated with an anecdote my wife told me, about the summer when she was sixteen and worked on a kibbutz in Israel. I can’t say much more about her story because I’d be giving away some surprises, but I knew as soon as I heard it that I wanted to turn the story into a book someday.
In order to do that, though, I needed to move the story to a setting I could write about from firsthand knowledge. I chose to set the book in a fictional Latin American country, and drew on my experiences in Nicaragua, where I’d spent a month helping to build a school in 1984. The underlying purpose of the project was to show our support for the Sandinista government, at a time when the Reagan Administration wanted to topple it. Our visit coincided with the height of tensions between the U.S. and Nicaragua, and for a while—with American spy planes breaking the sound barrier overhead each day, a noise that rattled windows and that many mistook for bombs—no one could say for sure that the U.S. wouldn’t invade at any moment. It seemed, in other words, that by volunteering, we might have put our lives in danger.
In portraying the fictional landscape of Monteverde, I drew on my notes from Nicaragua (combined with research on coastal South America). The fears of the American volunteers come straight from my notes and memories as well.
Near the end of The Watermelon, a new theme emerges: the impact of personal relationships on history. This, coincidentally, is also connected with Israel.
The story of Harry Truman’s decision to recognize the new State of Israel in 1948 has stayed with me ever since I heard it. Before going into politics, Truman owned a men’s clothing store with an army buddy, Eddie Jacobson. Jacobson was Jewish, and the two men remained close friends. Years later, after the Holocaust, when Israel declared its independence, most of Truman’s advisors urged him not to recognize the new state. But Truman felt that the Jewish people had suffered throughout history—and especially under Hitler—because they lacked a homeland and had no place to find refuge. I believe that his long friendship with Jacobson made these sufferings real and personal to him. Against the advice of his Secretary of State, General George C. Marshall (and a roomful of luminaries that included Dean Acheson and George F. Kennan), Truman decided to lend U.S. support to the new state by recognizing it. Personal relationships shape the way we understand the world, and that can have powerful, history-changing effects. I wanted The Watermelon to dramatize this.