Sarajevo isn’t a place I know much about. So when I found that Meeting Miss Irby was a book primarily about that part of the world I was excited to learn new territory. I was also intrigued to find the answer that was posed in the beginning of the book: Was the author, Josh Irby, related to Miss Irby in some way? As the story unfolded I found myself more concerned with the life of this young lady who gave up all the things that society held dear to bring education to children in a war torn area of the world. It fascinated me that a journey abroad for recreational purposes lead a woman of gentle breeding to become a vagabond of sorts in a country not her own for not one group of people, but several groups of people who weren’t necessarily friends with each other. In the midst of this compelling story, the author weaves his own pilgrimage from the United States to the city in which Miss Irby finished out her life. He discusses his adjustment to a different culture with a difficult language, and how his connection to this woman who bore his name helped him understand his new surroundings.
I appreciate Mr. Irby’s efforts to bring the sparse facts he found about the calling and work of his namesake into a beautiful tale, without embellishing the story or speculating to any great extent on things not known. Because of his own journey to Bosnia-Herzegovina he was able to imagine the difficulties posed by the weather and terrain. He was also able to explain the complexity of the relationships between the different people groups. These things added depth to the story that kept it from being a mere accounting of facts. However, he stayed committed to not superimposing fabricated relationships or experiences that would “round out” Miss Irby’s character at the expense of the truth. Consequently the reader comes away having enjoyed a well written biography of a simple woman who wasn’t really concerned with how the rest of the world would perceive her. One can imagine that she would be quite flummoxed to find that there is a street named after her right in the middle of the city.
If I were to offer any criticism about this book it would be that I wished to know more of the author’s story in Sarajevo. What was he doing there? How did his research into Miss Irby’s life confirm his own calling to the people in this part of the world? Some of this is alluded to in the book, and of course, can be found on his blog. But I came away feeling that a little fleshing out of the author’s own story could have added to the book’s overall flow. It begs the question of whether Mr. Irby might have inherited some of his subject’s lack of concern for the honor of man. At any rate, if you enjoy a good biography of unsung heroes, this is the book for you. I came away feeling inspired to face my life with a heart of service and a little less concern about the outward trappings.