Monday, October 15, 2018

In Desert and Wilderness by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Awfully slow for an adventure novel, no matter how old you are
In Desert and Wilderness, published in 1911, is a novel by Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature. The story takes place in northeastern Africa during the 1880s. Though Sienkiewicz wrote other historical adventure novels, In Desert and Wilderness is notable for being the only book he wrote that is intended for a young audience.

Fourteen-year-old Polish boy Stanislas (Stas) Tarkowski and eight-year-old English girl Nel Rawlinson live in Port Said, Egypt, where their widower fathers work as engineers for the Suez Canal. Because of the close friendship between their dads, Stas and Nel are raised almost as brother and sister. When their fathers are called away for various engineering projects, the kids are left at home in the hands of trusted servants. At this period in Africa’s history, a Muslim preacher known as the Mahdi has incited a rebellion against British rule. While the dads are away, Stas and Nel are kidnapped by Arabs who intend to exchange the children for prisoners held by the British. The kidnappers hope to take their little hostages as an offering to the Mahdi in Khartoum. The children, however, set out to escape their captors and undertake an arduous journey to reunite with their fathers.

Though this book may be intended for children, in the typical fashion of a century ago it is in no way dumbed-down as is so much young adult literature published today. Even grown-ups will have trouble keeping up with the intricate political history of Egypt and the Sudan. The series of events that leads to the kidnapping is quite convoluted and tests the patience of readers of all ages. When the captors and captives finally hit the road, it often reads less like a novel than an atlas, each sentence crammed with exotic place names. For a children’s story, there’s an awful lot of realistic violence that’s more suited to grown-up reading. On the other hand, adults won’t appreciate the more fairy tale aspects of the story, in which whatever the children need to survive miraculously falls right into their laps. The book contains some quite thrilling scenes, most involving encounters with wildlife, but they are few and far between, interspersed among long trudges through the desert.

Something else that dulls the excitement of this wilderness survival tale is the fact that the children are accompanied by servants throughout their ordeal. Though the kids show some ingenuity at times, and Stas is good with a rifle, the servants do much of the daily work required to keep them alive. When the children receive help from African characters, it’s never just because the Africans are good people who want to help two kids find their way home, but rather because they are silly, superstitious rubes who view the white kids as gods or benevolent spirits. The whole book is written as a justification of European rule in Africa, where the blacks would be lost without the guidance and governance of the whites.

The story has little to offer girls, as Nel mostly serves as the damsel in distress to Stas’s knight in shining armor. To anyone who has ever read a book by Sienkiewicz, the ending is a foregone conclusion. Adults who read this novel as children may have fond memories of three or four important scenes, but the book is 47 chapters long, and most of those chapters are a bore. Sienkiewicz is a talented writer, so In Desert and Wilderness is not without some literary merit, but it counts among his worst works.

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