Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival

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9780316835145: Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival

In 1815, twelve American sailors washed up on the shore of North Africa. Captured and sold into slavery, they were then dragged along on an insane journey through the bone-dry heart of the Sahara-a region no Westerners had ever explored. Rain was expected once every six years and it was so hot that cadavers naturally mummified. Along the way the Americans would encounter everything that could possibly test them: barbarism, murder, starvation, death, dehydration, and hostile tribes that roamed the desert on armies of camels. SKELETONS ON THE ZAHARA will remind readers of the bestseller In the Heart of the Sea, but in settings more exotic and with hardships even more difficult to survive. From the cold waters of the Atlantic to the searing Saharan sands, from the heart of the desert to the heart of man, SKELETONS ON THE ZAHARA is a spectacular odyssey through the extremes. This is quite simply the most exciting adventure story to be published in years.

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Review:

Some stories are so enthralling they deserve to be retold generation after generation. The wreck in 1815 of the Connecticut merchant ship, Commerce, and the subsequent ordeal of its crew in the Sahara Desert, is one such story. With Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, Dean King refreshes the popular nineteenth-century narrative once read and admired by Henry David Thoreau, James Fenimore Cooper, and Abraham Lincoln. King’s version, which actually draws from two separate first person accounts of the Commerce's crew, offers a page-turning blend of science, history, and classic adventure. The book begins with a seeming false start: tracing the lives of two merchants from North Africa, Seid and Sidi Hamet, who lose their fortunes—and almost their lives—when their massive camel caravan arrives at a desiccated oasis. King then jumps to the voyage of the Commerce under Captain Riley and his 11-man crew. After stops in New Orleans and Gibraltar, the ship falls off course en route to the Canary Islands and ultimately wrecks at the infamous Cape Bojador. After the men survive the first predations of the nomads on the shore, they meander along the coast looking for a way inland as their supplies dwindle. They subsist for days by drinking their own urine. Eventually, to their horror, they discover that they have come aground on the edge of the Sahara Desert. They submit themselves, with hopes of getting food and water, as slaves to the Oulad Bou Sbaa. After days of abuse, they are bought by Hamet, who, after his own experiences with his failed caravan (described at the novels opening), sympathizes with the plight of the crew. Together, they set off on a hellish journey across the desert to collect a bounty for Hamet in Swearah. King embellishes this compelling narrative throughout with scientific and historical material explaining the origins of the camel, the market for English and American slaves, and the stages of dehydration. He also humanizes the Sahrawi with background on the tribes and on the lives of Hamet and Seid. This material, doled out in sufficient amounts to enrich the story without derailing it makes Skeletons on the Zahara a perfectly entertaining bit of history that feels like a guilty pleasure. --Patrick O'Kelley

About the Author:

Dean King is the author of numerous books, including the highly acclaimed biography Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed, and has written for many publications, including Men's Journal, Esquire, Outside, New York magazine, and the New York Times. He lives in Richmond, Virginia.

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