Summary and book reviews of Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King

Skeletons on the Zahara

A True Story of Survival

by Dean King

Skeletons on the Zahara
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2004, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2005, 385 pages

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Book Summary

A spectacular true odyssey through the extremes of the Sahara Desert in the early 19th century. Reader and protagonist alike are challenged into new ways of understanding culture clash, slavery and the place of Islam in the social fabric of desert-dwelling peoples.

In a calm May morning in 1815, Captain James Riley and the crew of the Commerce left port in Connecticut for an ordinary trading voyage. They could never have imagined what awaited them.

Their nightmare began with a dreadful shipwreck off the coast of Africa, a hair-raising confrontation with hostile native tribesmen within hours of being washed ashore, and a hellish confinement in a rickety longboat as they tried, without success, to escape the fearsome coast. Eventually captured by desert nomads and sold into slavery, Riley and his men were dragged along on an insane journey through the bone-dry heart of the Sahara--a region unknown to Westerners. Along the way the Americans would encounter everything that could possibly test them: barbarism, murder, starvation, plagues of locusts, death, sandstorms that lasted for days, dehydration, and hostile tribes that roamed the desert on armies of camels. They would discover ancient cities and secret oases. They would also discover a surprising bond between a Muslim trader and an American sea captain, men who began as strangers, were forced to become allies in order to survive, and, in the tempering heat of the desert, became friends-even as the captain hatched a daring betrayal in order to save his men.

From the cold waters of the Atlantic to the searing Saharan sands, Skeletons on the Zahara is a spectacular odyssey through the extremes. Destined to become a classic among adventure narratives, Dean King's masterpiece is an unforgettable tale of survival, courage, and brotherhood.

Prologue: 1812

In his five crossings of the Sahara, Sidi Hamet had never seen worse conditions. Forty days out of Wednoon, the sand had turned as fine as house dust and as hot as coals of fire. With their heavy loads, the camels labored up shifting dunes in spine-buckling bursts, then stumbled down the other side. With each step, the dromedaries thrust in to their knees, their wide, padded feet, designed by Allah to skim over sand, sinking like stones.

Despite his experience on the desert, Hamet had had no say in choosing this, the most direct route to Tombuctoo, about twelve-hundred miles in all, one that would take many months to travel. Having dropped south from Wednoon, then east around the Anti-Atlas Mountains in six days, the caravan of a thousand men had halted on the edge of the desert, collecting many tons of the date-size argan fruit. The men had extracted oil from the argan pits to fortify their food. They had roasted the meat of the pits, rolled it into balls, and ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Just before the crew of the Commerce was captured by desert nomads, Riley stole some water from Dick Deslisle, the only black crew member. In his notes, the author observes that, although this theft might possibly be construed as an act of racism, Riley was, for a man of the early nineteenth century, "remarkably free of bigotry." Do you agree with this assessment of Riley's character? Why or why not?

  2. In North America the discourse on slavery is understandably dominated by the paradigm of white plantation owners and black slaves. Throughout history, however, slavery has existed in a number of different forms on almost every continent in the world. How did reading ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

Booklist - Gilbert Taylor

The dramatic incidents are supported with relevant details, such as the way the body reacts to dehydration and sun poisoning. Perhaps the story's most intriguing element is the mutual understanding that developed between Riley and his eventual master, Sidi Hamet....This is both a forcefully visceral and culturally astute account.

Publishers Weekly

Reader and protagonist alike are challenged by new ways of understanding culture clash, slavery and the place of Islam in the social fabric of desert-dwelling peoples.

Kirkus Reviews

A jaw-dropping story kept on edge, along with the reader exquisite and excruciating screw-turning.

Author Blurb David L. Robbins, author of Last Citadel
A narrative of chilling miseries and harrowing adventure, Dean King's telling leaves nothing unexplored in the slavery and rescue of American sailors on the blasted sands of the Sahara. The unbelievable is made believable, and the incomprehensible as glaring as the desert sun.

Author Blurb Dr. D. J. Ratcliffe, Emeritus Reader, History Department, University of Durham
A grand book.

Author Blurb Nathaniel Philbrick, author of In the Heart of the Sea and Sea of Glory
Dean King has brought to life one of the great, true-life adventure stories--a riveting tale of suffering and redemption.

Author Blurb Doug Stanton, author of In Harm's Way
Skeletons of the Zahara is an amazing, mind-boggling story of courage and endurance, rivaling Shackleton's drama and surpassing Krakauer's climb on Everest. This is history boldly told with a novelist's eye for the scorching detail.

Author Blurb Charles Slack, author of Noble Obsession
This incredibly true tale exposes its band of shipwrecked Americans to the most extreme tests of cruelty, savagery, and their own will to survive. Best of all, though, are the sweet notes of nobility and kindness that transcend culture, language, and the burning sands.

Reader Reviews

Walter Saunders

Heartwarming and Encouraging
When I first started reading this book I found it a little slow. Though as I read through it I discovered a story full of challenges of character as well as encouraging and eye opening moments. After reading completely through this book I can see how...   Read More

Mathew Benton

I would like to say that I have had a form of schizophrinia since 1988 called rapid thought and it knocked out my attention span. Ever since then all I could do is read. But in the last 17 years I have only read one other non-fiction book that has ...   Read More

rokzas

boring and dry
About as dry for me as the Zahara itself. Not an attention grabber with very little that made me want to continue at all

Megan

Don't care
Ok, so my class read this book & we all hated it. it was very boring & I wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

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