INTO THE FIELD
by Tracy Dahlby
Published in 2014 by University of Texas Press.
Reviewed by Retha Lindsey Fielding.
Breaking out of his chenille-curtained cocoon in his parents’ basement, Tracy Dahlby made a decision to become a foreign correspondent.
A few words on the radio had an amazing effect on his future. He doesn’t remember the radio broadcaster’s name, but a few words from the 1967 documentary The Roots of Madness, captured the mood with: “There are 700 million Chinese today, one quarter of the human race, and they are taught to hate. Their growing power is the world’s greatest threat to peace and light.”
Dahlby gives credit to that “high jacking by radio” for the beginning of his dream of becoming a foreign correspondent. His adventure took him to Japan where he lived for 13 years, marrying a Japanese woman, and then to New York City to live and work.
When Dahlby first began this long-distance work that would become his career, he was unsure where his boundaries were. He asked one of his editors how long he would be in the field, the man looked puzzled and said, “Come back when you’re finished reporting.’”
This freedom that Dahlby was handed was a gift that gave him the freedom to write the in-depth stories that he would become known for. Dahlby said, “Released from the rigors of tight news deadlines, I was free to report exactly where my nose led me and without adult supervision of any kind. “
As a foreign correspondent, Dahlby invites the reader to come along on three different trips in Asia where he starts from scratch on his stories for National Geographic, and moves them along to the finish, showing the reader how he got to the text that he wrote. It is here that I began to get confused, and I think the book would have been more exciting and clear if he had focused on one story. However, he meant this book to serve as a field guide and it does that, but it became a bit overwhelming to read.
I would imagine that the awesome quality of the magazine’s photography is quite a challenge for a writer to write copy to support the photographic images. To that end, Dahlby worked with an old screenwriter’s trick in mind: “Inject your story with themes as big and smart as you can muster—and then do your damnedest to hide them inside a human tale lest they take over and club your audience senseless with boredom.”
Dahlby gives a lot of credit to his “local fixer,” whom he calls the unsung hero of long-distance reporting, and for a correspondent there is absolutely nobody on earth more important. He doesn’t explain the process for finding a fixer in a local environment, and I would have like to have known more about that.
I won’t kid you this book is very dense and in some places confusing, but if you are interested in becoming a foreign correspondent anywhere in the world, this is the book for you. Even if you aren’t, this book is a very interesting read. But, give yourself time to take in all that Tracy Dahlby has packed into this one book.
Retha Lindsey Fielding has been a member since March. She is the author of one non-fiction book and is currently seeking representation for it.