Cyrenaica—once part of the nation of Tripoli—becomes the setting for a historical novel detailing the brutal 1805 trek through the Sahara Desert during the U.S.’s first foreign military action.
King Yusuf Vartoonian of Tripoli (now Libya) has captured 300 American mariners and is holding them for ransom. When Yusuf has 10 of them beheaded, President Thomas Jefferson is under pressure to show that his government can protect its citizens. A deal is struck between the U.S. and Yusuf’s older brother Prince Ahmad, who is the rightful heir to the throne. If Yusuf is overthrown and Ahmad given financial incentives, the Americans will be released. And so, fictional 19-year-old Pvt. Lemuel Sweet, the earnest, intelligent central protagonist, finds himself with a small group of Marines and a collection of Egyptians, Greeks, Arabs, and assorted misfits of various nationalities trudging through the unforgiving terrain of the Sahara. Among the members of this disharmonious coalition is Gustav Ladendorf, a Swiss engineer and speaker of many languages. When the group’s Egyptian translator is found dead (with his body mutilated), Ladendorf steps into the role. The journey from Alexandria to Derna—to collect supporters of Ahmad—is marked by violence, death, and desperation, not to mention the presence of a diabolically sinister spirit (a djinn). As the march progresses, McCandless (Sour Lake, 2017, etc.) portrays Ladendorf as an increasingly enigmatic, malevolent character in this haunting, multilayered novel that explores the futility of war, good versus evil, and the dispiriting transformation of a man from youthful optimist to disillusioned soul. Told partly through present-tense, third-person narration and partly through Sweet’s lengthy, intermittent diary entries, this dark story with heavy supernatural overtones vividly depicts the heat, aridness, and mystery of the unending expanse of sand and emptiness that tortures body and mind. Here is Sweet describing the desert: “Great systems of Dunes have developed. They are restless creatures. They writhe and rear in the wind, constantly repositioning themselves, like sleepers troubled by Nightmares.”
Not for the squeamish, but skillful, often elegant prose compensates for a disturbing tale about an American mission in Africa.