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Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival    by Dean King order for
Skeletons on the Zahara
by Dean King
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2005 (2004)
Hardcover, Softcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Mary Ann Smyth

Skeletons of the Zahara is a saga of unbelievable suffering and extraordinary fortitude. It portrays a passionate desire to live and, by so doing, to preserve the lives of others. In 1815, just after the War of 1812 concluded, when it was almost safe to ply the seas again, Connecticut Sea Captain James Riley set forth in the merchant brig Commerce with a crew of eleven, hoping to restore fortunes that had suffered during the war. The Commerce lost its way in the fog and was wrecked on the west coast of Africa. To Riley's and the crew's dismay, they were cast out on the edge of the Great Sahara Desert (then called the Zahara), where they were captured by camel-riding Arab nomads.

What follows is a tale of inconceivable cruelty and abuse by the crew's captors. Sold amongst the various tribes, the men were separated to undergo their individual ordeals without even the companionship of their crewmates. The nomads used these men as slaves, seeing no wrong in what they were doing. Theirs was an entirely different culture than those of modern Western societies. They fought disease, hunger, thirst and brutality as everyday occurrences. Holding these men for ransom was incidental to the work they could get out of them. The camel is the Ship of the Desert, invaluable to the nomadic life. When not used for transport, camels can be eaten. Even the hump is vital to the nomad's survival for the water it holds.

It is hard not to feel the utmost sympathy for Captain Riley and his crew for their plight after the wreck of the brig. On the other hand, reading the book made me understand better the rule of the desert and the background to the nomads' horrendous treatment of their Christian slaves. It is hard to believe that Captain Riley, who weighed in at 240 pounds at the start of the ill-starred voyage, dwindled down to ninety pounds! Four others who survived the ordeal ended up an extremely hard-to-believe forty to fifty pounds. The writing in Skeletons on the Zahara is excellent. Though not a novel, it manages to have the flow of one, keeping the reader breathlessly turning pages. It is no wonder that Dean King is highly regarded as a writer.

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