History Hoydens

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14 September 2007

To the ends of the earth...

I love exotic settings--the more different from 21st century California the better. This isn’t because I don’t like California–I do! But I read all kinds of books set in unusual places because so many countries on earth predate our 1776 inception by hundreds, if not thousands of years. I read for historical information, and for perspective. For connection. For humility.

Currently I am swept away by Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between, a New York Times nonfiction bestseller for many weeks and a real eye-opener for a history major who thought she knew all about the ancient world.

The Places in Between is the journal Rory Stewart kept during his walk across Afghanistan, alone but for a dog who adopted him. In the winter (!). At a time (2002) when trudging cross-country to Kabul was considered crazy-dangerous. How this man snaked his way through disbelief and red tape and did just that is worth knowing! How better to learn what Afghan children eat for breakfast? And the bites of history...ancient ties with India, the Turks, battles with Alexander the Great, language, culture, music (not allowed by the Taliban), art... wonderful stuff.

Stewart walked from village to village in varying states of post-Taliban decimation and degrees of friendliness (often not much). He slept on concrete floors surrounded by snoring male family members and their Kalishnikovs, ate meals cooked by the silent, heavily veiled women of the household, and again and again was warned not to continue on to Kabul.

But he did. His experiences were hair-raising on the adventure level and uplifting on the spiritual plane. The land he walked over is at high altitude, bitter cold in winter, and mostly barren except at lower elevations. Stewart found a good number of Afghans who were kind and went out of their way to be helpful; he encountered others who were brusque and suspicious.

Most Afghan villages are poor, proud, and largely illiterate. And perhaps you wonder why I am interested? I’m not planning a novel set in Afghanistan (great idea, though). As a writer of historical romance, I do not see a novelistic “use” for the long, long history of these people... at least not at present. To me, it’s fascinating (and maybe important) to realize that such a country is thousands of years old, with customs and language dating back into the dim, pre-historical past.

Walking across this land with Rory Stewart informed my mind and touched my spirit. I hope it will make me a better, more respectful writer.

Next time: Climber/author/Director of Central Asia Institute Greg Mortenson in Pakistan.

8 Comments:

Blogger Janet Mullany said...

This sounds great, Lynna.

One of my favorite books is "A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush" by Eric Newby, rather different in spirit from the sound of it, but a fascinating portrait of a place that was barely known or mapped (Afghanistan in the 1950s).

11:44 AM  
Anonymous Michelle said...

Thanks for posting this. I've often wondered if I should read that book. Have you read his other about his year in Iraq? That's also on my never-ending list of books I want to read someday.

1:40 PM  
Blogger Kristina Cook said...

Sounds fascinating, Lynna! Might just have to pick it up on my next Barnes & Noble run.

2:04 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

My husband spent some time in Afghanistan and what he learned is certainly an eye-opener. The book you mentioned has been on my TBR list for a while, now.

Did anyone ever read a book written by a Princeton man from the 1920s about his travels across the world with no money in his pocket? It's called something like Romancing the Road; it gives a very interesting picture of South America, Europe, and Asia, including India, in the 20s.

2:17 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Wow, Lynna. Thinking I'm going to have check this book out. What a wonderful blurb you wrote for it.

Got my interest, for sure.

Thanks

8:06 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

I have not read the book you are discussing but I have read Mortenson's book and look forward to your comments. I will try to read Stewart's before you post again.

Any insight in the way people live and think helps build our awareness of how different the Regency was, or any era we are writing about. Those "aha" moments come from the most unexpected places. I had one while listening to "BLINK" the other day.

6:18 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Michelle, no I haven't read Stewart's other book on Iraq, but it's on my Immediate list as of this minute.

4:32 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

What I find interesting about a book like this--from an historical novelist's perspective--is that it illustrates just how a rural population might have looked upon a newcomer. I think it gives us an insight into a mindset that is removed from that of our own.

1:05 PM  

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