Three Cups of Tea, originally published in 2006, struck a chord with the American public almost immediately, rocketing to the New York Times bestseller list for four years. A story infused with adventure, set in the little-known Baltistan region of northern Pakistan and featuring the intrepid "gentle giant" Greg Mortenson, captured the imagination of its American audience. It ended up garnering Mortenson's Central Asia Institute, which builds schools and other facilities in Pakistan and Afghanistan, millions of dollars in donations in the years after publication.
Three Cups of Tea covers the work of American former mountaineer Greg Mortenson, who, following a failed attempt to climb summit K2, the world's second-highest mountain, wandered into a nearby village, Korphe, a detour that would change his life. From that day in 1993, he committed himself to building schools for underserved children, especially girls, in remote northern Pakistan. David Oliver Relin, tapped by Viking to tell Mortenson's story, accompanied him to northern Pakistan three times and shadowed him at his schools (which, at time of publishing, numbered 53) to collect material for the story. Relin and Mortenson had, by some accounts, a contentious relationship because Mortenson was often difficult to pin down. Relin stated publicly that he did not agree with Mortenson being named a "co-author" of the work.
In any case, the success of Three Cups of Tea, especially in the first few years after publication, cannot be overstated. Mortenson became a public hero figure. He counted among his supporters General David Petraeus, who made the book mandatory reading for his soldiers going to Afghanistan, and President Barack Obama, who donated $100,000 from his $1.4 million Nobel Peace Prize win to Mortenson's organization, the Central Asia Institute. Mortenson had all but become a household name.
A few years after Three Cups of Tea was published, however, the veracity of many of its claims came into question. An investigation, begun by Into Thin Air writer Jon Krakauer, one of the CAI's earliest supporters, uncovered some glaring inconsistencies. The "creation story" of Three Cups of Tea - that Mortenson had been nursed back to health in the remote mountain village Korphe following his failed climb, and that he promised in turn to build the village a school - appeared to be just dramatic fabrication. Perhaps most shockingly, Mortenson's account of his abduction in Waziristan by Taliban tribal leaders was debunked; he did visit Waziristan in 1996, but his host, Badam Gul, strongly contests that any abduction takes place. Gul himself was angry enough to sue for defamation. Mortenson admits that the abduction may not have happened as such.
Mortenson also came under fire publicly for misappropriating funds from sales of the book. Of roughly $60 million in donations that came in, a considerable portion was spent on book promotions, private expenses for Mortenson, etc. A lawsuit was filed in a U.S. district court of Montana.
CBS ended up airing a segment of "60 Minutes" in 2011 that brought up these dilemmas. Mortenson responded with some admission of guilt and with a pledge to act better in the future. In 2012, in Montana Attorney General's Office announced that Mortenson had agreed to pay CAI over a million dollars in travel expenses and other "inappropriate personal charges." Mortenson was ordered to leave the CAI board and step down as Executive Director.
Sales of Three Cups of Tea may have suffered from this negative publicity, and its place in the national literature is not yet decided. It is still, however, widely taught in elementary and high schools around the country, with age-appropriate versions of the book for young readers.