Idealism and commitment take combative forms in Caputo’s mordant morality tale, a story that strongly resembles his fine 1980 novel Horn of Africa.
The setting is contemporary Africa’s Sudan, where Arab Muslim forces based in Khartoum wage war against Sudani natives, particularly those of the oil rich Nuba Mountains. Aid to embattled Nubans and their scattered allies is the task that unites (and divides) the numerous characters here. Biracial Kenyan soccer star Fitzhugh Martin finds work with airlift relief operation Knight Air, whose pilots include emotionally clenched American Douglas Brathwaite (driven by a guilty family secret), roughhewn Texan Wes(ley) Dare and plucky young Canadian Mary English (who surprises Wes, and us, by falling for the aging reprobate). Other involved figures include British Africanophile philanthropist Diana Briggs; pilot Tara Whitcomb (“the modern-day Beryl Markham”), who flies for Knight Air’s competition; Arab omda (warlord) Ibrahim Idirs, torn between making unwanted war and seeking his missing Nuban mistress; SPLA (Sudanese People’s Liberation Army) officer Michael Goraende; and Iowan missionary Quinette Hardin, who gives herself to Africa with passionate headlong intensity, and thereafter dutifully embraces the consequences of her actions. Caputo’s rich plot engulfs these, and many other ideologues, mercenaries and do-gooders, in several vividly detailed sequences: a dangerous mission to a makeshift mountain “hospital”; the reclamation of slaves from their greedy captors; the failure of Brathwaite’s scheme to organize international aid by staging a celebratory “Nuban Day”; battles between Goraende’s liberationist “army” and vastly superior Islamic invaders; and the airplane “accidents” staged to cover Knight Air’s real agenda, precipitating an explosive and bitter climax.
It’s overlong, and overattentive to its three romantic subplots. But Acts of Faith offers an image of Africa deserving comparison with Conrad, Hemingway, Peter Matthiessen, and Jan de Hartog’s forgotten near-masterpiece The Spiral Road.