Christian, Shirley 1938-
CHRISTIAN, Shirley 1938-
(Shirley Ann Christian)
PERSONAL: Born January 16, 1938, in Windsor, MO; daughter of Herbert Walsh and Minnie Lucille (Acker) Christian. Education: Pittsburg State University, Pittsburg, KS, B.A., 1960; Ohio State University, M.A., 1966; graduate study at Harvard University, 1973–74. Politics: "Independent." Religion: Congregational United Church of Christ.
CAREER: Writer. Associated Press, United Nations correspondent, 1970–73, copy editor and foreign desk reporter, 1974–77, bureau chief in Santiago, Chile, 1977–79; Miami Herald, Miami, FL, Latin American correspondent, 1979–83; New York Times, foreign affairs reporter in Washington, DC, 1985–86, bureau chief in Buenos Aires, Argentina, beginning 1986. Adjunct professor of journalism at Columbia University, 1977; visiting professor of journalism at Baylor University, 1985.
AWARDS, HONORS: Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and George Polk Memorial Award for foreign reporting, Long Island University's journalism department, both 1981.
Nicaragua: Revolution in the Family (nonfiction), Random House (New York, NY), 1985.
(Editor) Judith Evans, Investing and Selling in Latin America, Hemisphere Business (Shawnee Mission, KS), 1995.
Before Lewis and Clark: The Story of the Chouteaus, the French Dynasty That Ruled America's Frontier, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to periodicals, including Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, and New Republic.
SIDELIGHTS: After ten years spent working in her field, journalist Shirley Christian won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1981. Christian began as a correspondent to the United Nations for the Associated Press and was a Latin American correspondent for the Miami Herald at the time she received the Pulitzer. After writing her critically acclaimed first book, Nicaragua: Revolution in the Family, Christian signed on as a foreign affairs reporter with the New York Times and has served as that paper's bureau chief in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Christian added research to the background experience she had gained in Central America to produce Nicaragua. The book deals with much of Nicaragua's past history but focuses primarily on the activities and motivations of the Sandinista government. As an important backdrop to this focus, however, Christian also discusses the previous dictatorship ruled by the allegedly corrupt Somoza family. Though her book concerns a controversial subject—the communist nature of the Sandinistas and their conflict with the resistance or contras—critics generally recognized Christian's objectivity as a writer. In reference to the noisy arguments and sensationalized charges often encountered on both sides of the Nicaragua issue, Gabriel Zaid commented in the New Republic that "Shirley Christian chose to attend to something less clamorous, but more revealing: the reality behind the rhetoric…. She lets events, slowly assembled, speak for themselves." Similarly, Timothy Garton Ash stated in the New York Times Book Review that "it is marvelous to find a book that spends most of its considerable length just telling us what actually happened—facts, dates, names, quotations recorded by a professional journalist." Ash further noted that "anyone seriously interested in contemporary Nicaragua will have to read it."
Even critics who saw Christian's book as unfair to the Sandinistas considered it worthy of note. While advancing the opinion that "in order to make the sins of the Sandinistas stand out in bold relief, the author first mutes and softens the grim record of the Somoza dynasty," Robert E. White affirmed in Commonweal that "there is much that is valuable in Nicaragua." He pointed to Christian's practice of juxtaposing speakers with opposing views—the words of contra leaders follow upon those of Sandinista revolutionaries—admitting that "these voices … have an authentic ring" and that "Shirley Christian writes wonderfully well."
According to reviewers, the epilogue to Nicaragua presents the author's thesis clearly and succinctly. In it, Christian writes: "The leaders of the Sandinista Front intended to establish a Leninist system from the day they marched into Managua whether they called it that or not. Their goal was to assure themselves the means to control nearly every aspect of Nicaraguan life, from beans and rice to religion." Also deemed integral to the work by critics was her statement that the contras "represented what little hope there was to force the Sandinista Front into accepting major structural changes toward an open political system."
According to Richard L. Millett in a Washington Post Book World review, Christian was "far from uncritical in [her] approach to the efforts of the [U.S. President Ronald] Reagan administration to deal with the situation" in Nicaragua. But she does not hold Reagan's predecessor, President Jimmy Carter, blameless either. As Ash pointed out, the Pulitzer Prize-winner's "first major conclusion is that the Carter administration missed a real opportunity to bring to power a civilian, moderate and pluralistic regime" in place of Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza Debayle's. Christian claims in Nicaragua that "moderate political alternatives to Somoza" were looking to the United States for help in setting up a government—a government which in her opinion would have been much less repressive than the Marxist Sandinistas. The Carter administration's policy toward Nicaragua, however, was "shaped by the Vietnam experience" and therefore "unwilling to use U.S. influence to effect change," according to Christian. Instead, it continued dealing with Nicaragua under the Somoza dictatorship "basically as a human rights problem," in her words.
By 1979, however, Somoza's dictatorship had fallen and the revolutionary Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (Sandinista National Liberation Front; FSLN)—which was closely allied to the Soviet Union and Cuba, and had signed military treaties with those two countries, and thus antagonistic to the United States—had assumed power. The United States, argues Christian, should learn from the Nicaraguan revolution that it "should not allow itself to fall into the trap of having to accept, in an area as closely tied to it as Central America, either a repressive right-wing dictatorship because it is not threatening to U.S. national security or a repressive left-wing dictatorship in exchange for commitments not to overthrow a neighboring government or acquire MiGs [Soviet aircraft]."
In addition to making strong declarations about U.S. policy, Nicaragua contains much information about that country's social climate. Christian discusses the various sectors of Nicaraguan society and how they perceived the Sandinista government. She garnered praise for her examination of the discord between the Sandinistas and the market vendors, which "provides illuminating evidence of the gap between Sandinista rhetoric and actual practice," according to Millett. Christian also covers the story of the minority Miskito Indians and, as Lawrence Pezzullo stated in the Los Angeles Times, "documents how the Sandinistas' compulsion to control drove the fiercely independent Miskitos to violence and exile." In addition, White referred to Nicaragua's chapter on Catholicism as "particularly informative and contain[ing] good description and sound analysis of the conflicts within the Catholic church in Nicaragua."
Christian also makes it clear that Nicaragua was a divided country not only socially and politically, but familiarly. Even its families often had members on both sides of the conflict. For instance, as Zaid pointed out, "Ernesto and Fernando Cardenal, brothers, priests, and Sandinista ministers (in charge of culture and education), are the cousins of Pablo Antonio Cuadra, the director of La Prensa, the opposition's sole daily newspaper. They are also related to Jose Francisco Cardenal, who is in armed opposition to the Sandinista regime." Uncles and nephews, parents and children, brothers and sisters sometimes found themselves in factious opposition to one another. Claudia Chamorro Barrios, an official in the Sandinista Ministry of Culture, had a brother, Pedro Joaquin, now "in civil opposition in Costa Rica," explained Zaid. Pezzullo summed up Christian's volume as "a book that succeeds in holding up a mirror reflecting a true image of a revolution in the Nicaraguan family." The Sandinisatas were ousted from office in a peaceful election in 1990. They still exist as an opposition party in Nicaragua.
In Before Lewis and Clark: The Story of the Chouteaus, the French Dynasty That Ruled America's Frontier, Christian turns her eye to the Corps of Discovery journey across the wilds of a continent that would become part of the United States. Christian reveals that the French and French Canadians had long mapped out and trapped much of the area traversed by Lewis and Clark and their group. She also tells how Pierre and Auguste Chouteau, French aristocratic brothers, helped pave the way for the group's safe passage. Christian's book is "a useful tonic to a literature suddenly full of books on Lewis and Clark, but with only passing references to those who came before them," wrote a Kirkus Reviews contributor. Gilbert Taylor, writing in Booklist, called it a "fascinating history bound to enrapture Old West readers." A Publishers Weekly contributor noted, "Christian's lively portrait of the Chouteaus opens a window on a little-known portion of early American history."
Christian is also the editor of Investing and Selling in Latin America, which Ulrich Merten, writing in the Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, called "a good guide for the new investor … interested in entering the Latin American market."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Christian, Shirley, Nicaragua: Revolution in the Family, Random House, 1985.
Rosenblum, Mort, Coups and Earthquakes: Reporting the World to America, Harper, 1981.
Booklist, February 15, 2004, Gilbert Taylor, review of Before Lewis and Clark: The Story of the Chouteaus, the French Dynasty That Ruled America's Frontier, p. 1020.
Commonweal, November 1, 1985, Robert E. White, review of Nicaragua.
Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, spring, 1997, Ulrich Merten, review of Investing and Selling in Latin America, p. 182.
Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2004, review of Before Lewis and Clark, p. 67.
Library Journal, April 1, 2004, Lawrence R. Maxted, review of Before Lewis and Clark, p. 106.
Los Angeles Times, August 18, 1985, Lawrence Pezzullo, review of Nicaragua.
Nation, September 7, 1985, George Black, review of Nicaragua, p. 181.
National Review, June 28, 1985, David Brooks, review of Nicaragua, p. 40.
New Leader, October 21, 1985, Selden Rodman, review of Nicaragua, p. 18.
New Republic, September 30, 1985, Gabriel Zaid, review of Nicaragua, p. 32.
New York Times, July 20, 1985, Timothy Garton Ash, review of Nicaragua.
New York Times Book Review, July 28, 1985.
Publishers Weekly, February 16, 2004, review of Before Lewis and Clark, p. 160.
Washington Monthly, July-August, 1985, Charles Lane, review of Nicaragua, p. 50.
Washington Post Book World, July 14, 1985, Richard L. Millett, review of Nicaragua.