three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
11-July-Aug-2004
By: 
Dean King
user_rating: 
0

A-SkeletonsZaharaIf ever a book could offer a cure for wanderlust, it’s the tale of Capt. James Riley and his crew. Shipwrecked off the coast of Africa in 1815, the American seafarers were captured by Muslim slave traders and subjected to an arduous march across the (Z)Sahara Desert. King’s use of the old spelling is perhaps appropriate; the Zahara that he reconstructs from the accounts of Riley and others might surprise modern geography buffs. Here traders marched their human wares naked under skin-searing sun, forcing them to subsist on camel urine and rotten goat entrails. And here the fate of the Americans not only depended on Riley’s ingenuity but also on Sidi Hamet, a trader who held the keys to their survival.
Little, Brown. 320 pages. $24.95.

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"… King has an unusual talent for evoking the past—its essence as well as the smells, sights and sounds – while still managing to view it in the light of what we have come to know in the many decades since. … This is one of the most absorbing and satisfying books to come out in a very long time." Martin Rubin

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"King does a fine job of bringing readers up to speed at judicious intervals on the customs of the time both in the seafaring world and in global geopolitics. … Even armchair adventurers satiated with exotic travelogues will appreciate heroism amid adversity in this fast-paced account of slow torture—and an almost-happy ending." Grace Lichtenstein

Rocky Mountain News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Clearly, this is not a land, nor perhaps a book, for the faint of heart. … Seldom have I appreciated a Big Gulp and a microwaved burrito more than after reading about these poor guys living on goat guts and camel urine." Duane Davis

San Diego Union-Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"Like a car wreck, this book is hard to turn away from. … Oddly for a writer who penned a biography of Patrick O’Brian and a glossary of seamen’s terms and phrases as a companion to O’Brian’s series of novels about the early British Navy, King makes no judgments about several of Capt. Riley’s blunders that bring his seamanship into question, and ultimately lead to the shipwreck." Neal Matthews

Minneapolis Star-Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"The first 80 or so pages will be of interest only to nautical-history buffs, involving as they do endless accounts of longitude, latitude and depth soundings. … There is a kind of brutal authenticity to King’s factual description both of the traders and their captives that fastens the reader firmly within place and time." Emily Carter

Critical Summary

Reviewers agree that King can tell a ripping yarn. Whether he does so consistently, and whether his analytical skills match his storytelling abilities, are points of contention. Several critics complained of King’s tendency to dwell on peripheral topics like the Connecticut shipbuilding industry, sometimes at the expense of more pertinent analysis. A few reviewers recommended Riley’s original account, citing an immediacy that King could never reproduce. However, most saw value in King’s retelling, praising its skillful application of hindsight and its uplifting portrayal of charity between strangers. Readers will certainly feel the book’s effect in their guts–and perhaps hearts and minds as well.