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Greg Mortenson is a classic unlikely hero in the vein of Tom Sawyer, the kid from Holes, or anyone in a John Green novel. He grew up in Africa (à la Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls), where his dad, who was nicknamed Dempsey for some unknown reason, taught school.
When the Mortensons moved back to the States, little Greg had trouble adjusting. He was made fun of for being a white kid who lived in Africa, and he was bad at time management. "Greg has always operated on Africa time" (4.28), we're told, which sounds like an offensive joke about black people always being late to us. Unless, of course, time somehow actually works differently in Africa? Yeah, we didn't think so either.
But Greg's dad dispensed some priceless self-help book wisdom, teaching Greg "if you believe in yourself, you can accomplish anything" (4.22). Here are some things Greg accomplished: two years in the military, becoming a nurse, living out of his car (nicknamed La Bamba for unexplained reasons), and climbing huge piles of granite (a.k.a. mountains).
At a glance, it seems like Mortenson isn't going to amount to much more than being the kind of wilderness-loving vagrant Jon Krakauer would love to write about for completely different reasons. But when Mortenson's sister dies, he wants to honor her memory by leaving her necklace at the top of K2, the world's second-highest mountain. It's there that his life takes a dramatic turn.
Mortenson doesn't make it to the top of K2. Instead, he stumbles into the remote village of Korphe. They're so freaking nice to him, that Mortenson wants to "discharg[e] the debt he felt to his hosts in Korphe" (3.19), a mission that grows into him wanting to build schools all over Pakistan and, later, Afghanistan.
It takes a while to get anything started. Mortenson has to fundraise first, but the skills he's developed mountain climbing have given him tons of persistence, so he keeps at it until he eventually gets a donation from Dr. Jean Hoerni. This gets the ball rolling for Mortenson, so he sells his personal belongings, including his beloved La Bamba, to get the money he needs to travel.
Everyone who meets Mortenson, even the people in the far away villages of Pakistan, love him at first sight. The villages often call him "Dr. Greg" (3.20) because he's a nurse. He does his best to fit in, like when he has a humble brown shalwar made, not wanting to be flashy. And although he encounters a few roadblocks early on (literally—like a giant gorge he has to build a bridge over), once the ball starts rolling it's hard to stop. According to this book, Mortenson just doesn't take no for an answer.
Over the course of ten years, Mortenson travels across most of Pakistan building schools, especially in remote mountain regions where girls, especially, need education. Why he also consistently introduced and referred to women by their hair color as well as their names feels a little bit at odds with this investment in the value of females, but since it's never addressed, we'll just leave this thought here for you to think on for yourselves, Shmoopers.
So Greg Mortenson is pretty awesome. He survives getting kidnapped by the Taliban; navigates the dicey relationship between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, despite being neither; and charms everyone from village leaders to U.S. government officials to donors with deep pockets. What can't this man do?
Well, if Jon Krakauer and 60 Minutes are to be believed, the answer is a whole lot. Like A Million Little Pieces, Three Cups of Tea might be Three Cups of Baloney. Relin only briefly mentions the problems Mortenson has with management, like how he wants to do everything by himself, "cloaked […] in the silence of his basement" (18.33), and his refusal to hire assistants causes a couple of people to resign from the board.
However, this brief criticism is quickly followed up with glowing praise, like when his mother-in-law says "He's his own species" (18.90)—in a good way, not in a deadly Australian creature sort of way, we're sure. You'll have to decide for yourself exactly what you think: Is Mortenson a good man, or is it all a myth?