Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival


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While there have been numerous historical adventure narratives published, this is the first major work to take place in the greatest desert of all. King retraced parts of Captain James Riley's three-month trek through the desert, going for days consuming only camel urine and locusts. The book is rich with the sort of detail one could only get from being on the scene, in the heart of the desert.

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Oct 21, 2008

Remarkable, ruthless, and inspiring

This won?t be the last time you see a subtitle like A True Story of Survival in one of my reviews. In fact, those five words couldn?t better describe my favorite kind of nonfiction: books where real human beings find themselves in extraordinary struggles against astounding odds to keep existing.

Sometimes the circumstances in such books are seemingly pedestrian?more about internal conflicts than brushes with death. But they?re still about survivors. Two of my favorites are Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, Terry Tempest Williams?s levelheaded memoir of her battle against the ravages of floods and breast cancer, and Shot in the Heart, Mikal Gilmore?s account of his fight to surmount and understand a family so dysfunctional that it helped to produce his notorious brother, executed murderer Gary Gilmore.

Then there are the nonfictions whose circumstances are almost incomprehensible. Flyboys: A True Story of Courage documents the tortuous conditions and barbaric mistreatment of eight U.S. soldiers held captive by the Japanese military in World War II. And, for me, perhaps the most memorable and moving book of this ilk is Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, where Harriet Jacobs writes of fleeing her ruthless nineteenth-century slave-owner and enduring a disfiguring seven-year confinement that caused her unbearable physical and emotional pains, all in her quest to be free.

It?s a cheery stack of books, isn?t it? You might not think so, but each one painstakingly documents the perseverance of the soul, which is invariably captivating and inspiring. And that brings me to Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival. First and foremost, this book is an enduring story of human suffering. It?s the account of the 1815 shipwreck of the Commerce, a U.S. merchant ship. When the Commerce runs aground in a storm off the coast of Africa, her crew is thrust into a confounding foreign land and a desperate fight for survival. Guided by Captain James Riley, they escape their crippled vessel, make their way to a nearby beach, and are immediately overtaken by nomads seeking to loot everything of value.

All but one member of the 12-man crew are able to escape with their lives in an unsteady longboat. But after many storm-tossed days at sea, their dehydration forces them back to the coast, where they are stranded on the edge of the Sahara Desert (then called the Zahara) and their most desperate adventure begins. They stumble upon a Sahrawi tribe in the desert and soon discover the vehemence with which these Berber-Arabs desire Christian slaves. After the Sahrawi battle each other for possession of these new slaves, the 12 crew members find themselves separated and numbered among the animals and other belongings of individual slave-masters.

Author Dean King extensively researched his history of the Commerce tragedy, relying especially on the autobiographies of Captain Riley and Archibald Robbins (a crewman) for firsthand depictions of the entire saga. King is wholly successful in re-creating for the reader the vastness and harshness of the Sahara, the complexity of the cultures in that land, and both the personal and overarching narratives that represent this one shipwreck (of many) along Africa?s Cape Bojador. He depicts the intricate, debilitating stages of dehydration and the agonies of hunger, which reduced Captain Riley from his pre-wreck weight of 240 pounds to less than 90 pounds. From the brutality of slavery to the relentlessness of the sun and sand on naked skin to the bone-rattling, thigh-chafing rides atop camels, King paints a vivid picture.

Some of Riley?s men didn?t survive. Some were never able to escape slavery or the Sahara. Little is known of the fates of these men. But Riley and Robbins did live to tell of their harrowing time in Africa. They became national heroes, and their autobiographies were bestsellers. Abraham Lincoln read Riley?s An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce as a boy and considered it a seminal book from his youth. The story also influenced Henry David Thoreau and James Fenimore Cooper. And after experiencing the astounding struggles of the Commerce?s seamen via Skeletons on the Zahara, I can understand why great men and school children were captivated by this timeless story of undying hope.


Sep 20, 2007

And incredible story turned into an incredible book.

2 Silent Ratings

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