After Greg Mortenson's first book, Three Cups of Tea, became a runaway success, a lot of people wanted to have tea with
him. Mortenson became the toast of book clubs, colleges and even the U.S. military, to the point that his nonfiction
account of building schools in Central Asia, published in 2006 and written with David Oliver Relin, literally became
required reading for many of them. Thousands of people showed up at his book signings. At least one of his speeches was
displayed on a Jumbotron, prompting the comment that Durango had seen nothing like it since Willie Nelson came to
Mortenson's Durango visit merited nearly two pages early on in Stones into Schools, during the author's discussion of
his Three Cups of Tea" lecture circuit. Mortenson spoke at Fort Lewis College in September 2008.
Very few of the people in Durango that night had ever been to Pakistan or Afghanistan," he wrote on page 10.
No more than a handful could have been Muslim. And it was doubtful that a single one would ever see, with his own
eyes, the schools, books, pencils and teacher salaries that his money would pay for." He continued, on the threshold
of the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression a small community in Colorado responded in exactly the
same way as every other city and town to which I have traveled in America since this whole saga got started."
Mortenson spent so much time on the American lecture circuit that he paid a steep price. He suffered panic attacks,felt exhausted and could no longer readily travel to do the work that Three Cups of Tea describes. His dream project, a
school 10 years in the making in a particularly remote and difficult area, wound up being completed without him.
And a question arose: How could a man whose success had been based on such self-effacing relief work reconcile humility
with celebrity? Mortenson's second and very different book, Stones into Schools, provides an answer.
As this new book's strong, opinionated voice makes clear (with a first-person narrative much more vigorous than the
third person of Three Cups of Tea, in which he appears as Mortenson"), he was never all that humble in the first
place. And he was never shy. The new book records his irritation with the former president of Pakistan (Gen. Pervez
Musharraf) and the president of Afghanistan (Hamid Karzai) when each finds a way to pay lip service to the work of
Mortenson's Central Asia Institute without providing any help.
As Stones into Schools explains, the institute has accomplished its innovative educational work without any government
money. That point is crucial because it has allowed the Montana-based institute to reach across borders with remarkable
impunity. While Three Cups of Tea describes how Mortenson stumbled into his life's work, which began as the building of
schools for girls in remote parts of Pakistan, Stones Into Schools takes him into hazier geographical realms. The new
book is about his organization's expansion into Afghanistan - and into one region so inaccessible that one Afghan
official isn't sure that it doesn't belong to neighboring Tajikistan or China instead.
That might make the high drama of Three Cups of Tea, which was considerable, seem an impossible act to follow. Does his
second book have comparably earthshaking events to report? Actually, it finds some, including the devastating
earthquake that struck Kashmir in 2005, destroying many schools and, Mortenson says, wiping out an entire generation of
literate children in four minutes' time. Though his own work then was farther north, in the Wakhan Corridor just south
of Tajikistan, Mortenson seems never to have found a crisis he could resist.
His great conviction, expressed to irresistibly inspiring effect in both books, is that the right kind of educational
effort can bridge enormous gaps. Although he reiterates this point without describing exactly what the children in
Central Asia Institute schools are taught, he is convinced that encouraging literacy is a way to promote trust and
understanding. Three Cups of Tea was originally published with the subtitle One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and
Build Nations," but Mortenson insisted on having that changed for the paperback edition. The new, improved version,One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time," is a far better reflection of why Mortenson's ideas have
made such a difference.
Stones into Schools presents him as a vigorous, mavericky adventurer now inundated with requests for schools who is
very shrewd about sizing up the best opportunities. When asked to build schools in Kabul, he had no interest. But when
14 galloping Kyrgyz horsemen raced into Pakistan from Afghanistan through a narrow mountain pass to seek his assistance
in 1999, though their communities were barely accessible by dirt road or tank track, and any effort to import
construction materials meant crossing high mountains - well, that was an offer he couldn't refuse.
Much of Stones into Schools hinges on the logistical challenges, but this book is also suffused with its author's
unorthodox tactics and distinctive personal style (no underwear, lots of ibuprofen). It also colorfully describes the
local sidekicks and power brokers without whom, he says, I would still be nothing more than a dirtbag mountaineer
subsisting on ramen noodles and living in the back of his car." And it offers some all-important insight into how,exactly, they cut through bureaucratic red tape and accomplish miracles with very little money.
One typical thing that galls Mortenson here is the ridiculous boondoggle" of an effort, financed by the U.S.
government, to deliver hundreds of thousands of plastic bottles of mineral water to villages in Azad Kashmir.
Meanwhile, his own people - who prevailed in this dispute, as they have in so many - were busy building water-delivery
pipes and tanks on a local level.
As Stones into Schools chronicles the institute's work, it captures the physical and political landscapes of
Afghanistan in ways that make it exceptionally timely and compelling. Mortenson, after all, has faced Taliban
resistance to any educational system for girls, let alone one with American connections. But he has clear thoughts
about how such undertakings can succeed. When the local people who want a school built face religious threats,appointing a mullah to oversee the effort can sometimes work wonders.
Mortenson (writing with research assistance from Mike Bryan and structural help from Kevin Fedarko) describes one
visually breathtaking setting after another, though not in a fashion fit for travelogues. The water, he says, can be
Windex blue. The altitude can be so high that removing shoes is dangerous because low air pressure can make feet swell.
And it's possible to see desperate families cooking meals over fires made from charitable donations of expensive
mountaineering gear, or glimpse a sheep grazing on a hillside with a puffy down jacket wrapped around its hind end."
As Stones into Schools constantly illustrates, some forms of help from afar are infinitely more valuable than
Arts & Entertainment Editor Ted Holteen contributed to this article.