Kirkus Star


A True Story of Survival
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The horrendous ordeal of 11 American seamen, shipwrecked on the Atlantic coast of North Africa and then sold into slavery, grippingly chronicled by adventure writer King (Harbors and High Seas, 1996, etc.).

The War of 1812 had just ended, and Captain James Riley was hungry to get back to work on the brig Commerce, sailing out of Connecticut to buy cheap and sell dear in the wake of the British wartime blockade. But strange weather and bad luck sent Riley’s ship onto the rocks of Atlantic Africa, then more bad luck put him and ten shipmates in the hands of nomads who took them into slavery. What happened over the next two months was so extraordinary that the narrative flies under its own steam, though King ably guides its progression and the reader’s absorption, using two firsthand accounts published after the event as his source material. The degree of privation the men suffered was so absurd it’s a wonder the nomads kept them at all, for their work value as slaves was scant. Yet there they are: sun-blasted, sand-blasted, wind-blasted, thighs chafed to bleeding ribbons from riding camels, feet shredded to the bone by sharp rocks, so thirsty that drinking urine was a comfort, so hungry they ate pieces of infected flesh that had been cut off the camels and the skin peeling off their own bodies. The men were split up, briefly reunited, then rudely separated; King plays these episodes like stringed instruments upon the reader’s taut occupation with the proceedings. A lifetime of misery was packed into two months, after which six of the seamen, led by the worthy Riley, managed to convince a trader to buy them for the bounty he will receive from the European consul in Morocco.

A jaw-dropping story kept on edge, along with the reader: exquisite and excruciating screw-turning. (b&w maps and illustrations)

Pub Date: Feb. 16th, 2004
ISBN: 0-316-83514-5
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Little, Brown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 2003


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