Compassion, empathy, and impulsiveness define the character of Greg Mortenson, the book’s protagonist. When the reader initially meets Mortenson, for instance, he works as a nurse and cares lovingly for his sister. At the same time, he has few commitments and spends much of his time and money pursuing adventure. Mortenson’s compassion and easy-going, unstructured lifestyle actually work together in pushing him into humanitarian work. Notably, Mortenson never sets out to become a humanitarian. He begins his humanitarian career almost accidentally, when a climbing trip goes wrong and he ends up in the care of the village of Korphe. Seeing children trying to learn by writing in the dirt, Mortenson promises the villagers that he will return and build them a school. From there, his compassion leads him to expand his school-building project to nearby areas that also need better education. Mortenson’s empathy then helps him to learn the cultures and behaviors of rural Pakistan, allowing him to work easily with the local residents and village leaders in constructing and staffing his schools. His way of living lets him adapt comfortably to the harsh conditions of the Pakistani mountains and lets him commit to projects in distant Pakistan when his family resides in the U.S., and when he does not always know where his next paycheck will come from.
Mortenson’s preference for acting before considering all the consequences is, alternately, a great benefit and a hindrance for him and those he works with. He doesn’t stop to wonder how difficult it will be to construct a school in the mountains of Pakistan, for example, and if he had he might have realized the considerable difficulties of the project and decided it was impossible. In this instance, his impulsiveness may have been necessary for him to take on the project at all. On the other hand, the construction of the school might have gone much more smoothly had he actually stopped and considered the difficulties involved. Mortenson’s impulsiveness nearly has lethal consequences when he takes off for Waziristan without first making contact with anyone in the region. The Taliban kidnaps him and holds him for just over a week. In fact, the greatest lesson Mortenson learns over the course of the book is to spend time building relationships with others rather than rushing ahead on his own.
As the leader of Korphe, Haji serves as one of Mortenson’s most important guides in the region. He teaches Mortenson both through his advice and by explaining to Mortenson the Balti culture. For instance, Haji teaches Mortenson about the customs of Northeastern Afghanistan, helping Mortenson to understand how he should communicate with people in the area to earn their support. Perhaps more importantly, Haji teaches Mortenson to build relationships in the Balti fashion, rather than barging ahead as Westerners tend to do. Haji repeatedly emphasizes sacrifice and patience, as when he tells Mortenson that they can wait to build the Korphe school until after the bridge is built. These teachings become crucial to Mortenson as the book progresses. They make him more effective at dealing with locals in the region, making Mortenson a more effective director of the CAI and resulting in more schools being built. Haji’s legacy continues even after he dies, in the enlightened attitudes of his son, Twaha, who vows to honor his father’s teachings, and in his grand-daughter, Jahan, who becomes a prime example of the CAI’s success in providing education for girls.
Jean Hoerni appears very little in the book, but his support of Mortenson’s project provides the initial boost that allows Mortenson to succeed. In addition, his cantankerous attitude provides an important contrast to Mortenson’s affability. Hoerni’s warning to Mortenson not to “screw up” the Korphe school begins a process in which Mortenson learns to take himself and his mission more seriously. The project, Mortenson realizes, should not be treated as just another adventure. As their relationship develops, Hoerni’s faith in Mortenson becomes both a support and a motivation. Like Mortenson, Hoerni is an eccentric who lives on his own terms, but he is also a humanitarian who takes pride in the accomplishments made possible by his money. One of the most touching parts of the book takes place when Mortenson nurses the dying Hoerni, and Hoerni expresses his feelings of fatherly love for the younger man. Even after his death, Hoerni has a great influence on Mortenson and his work, not only through his endowment to the CAI, but also through the work done by his wife, Jennifer Wilson, and her sister, Julie Bergman.
Although Tara Bishop does not appear extensively in the book, she acts as a crucial helpmate and anchor for Mortenson. In fact, Tara, who was brought up among explorers, seems almost uniquely suited to be Mortenson’s wife. Most importantly, she accepts Mortenson’s impetuous personality and erratic work schedule and maintains a home life that enables Mortenson to have some balance between work and family. Although she worries about Mortenson’s safety and lives in what she calls “functional denial” while he is away, she nonetheless never wavers in her support for his work. She even takes their two children on trips to Pakistan when she can. Tara does also recognize Mortenson’s flaws, and she encourages and helps him to make necessary personal changes, such as paying better attention to schedules.