Thursday, September 07, 2006

Book 76: Acts of Faith

Philip Caputo's novel Acts of Faith is an ambitious novel of Sudan and the relief work that is currently going on in Africa. In this nearly 700 page novel Caputo paints a bleak portrait of Sudan and with a sprawling cast of characters he attempts to illustrate the reality of the country's situation by telling the story of fictional aid workers. The first storyline that Caputo begins to weave into this tapestry is of Fitzhugh Martin, a multi-racial Kenyan soccer hero who was recently fired by the United Nations because his morality got in the way of doing his job and protecting the U.N.. Fitzhugh is put into contact with Douglas Braithwaite, the founder of Knight Air, a relief organization which will fly aid into the heart of Sudan. Knight Air isn't the typical U.N. Sanctioned relief organization, however. Knight Air operates under the radar and works with Non-Government Organizations (NGO's) to provide aid to Sudan for profit. Knight Air, and other organizations, are willing to do the things the U.N. either cannot or will not do to help those in need. Knight Air also hires Wesley Dare, a pilot, into the mix. In the process of illegally, but profitably flying aid into "The Nuba" (a region of Sudan that the U.N. is forbidden), Douglas, Fitzhugh, and Wesley make contacts with rebels who are sympathetic but have their own needs and we watch as the unspoken laws of Sudan start influencing the relief workers who began the company with the best of intentions. Despite that this is a for profit company, the founders are risking their lives to fly in the much needed humanitarian aid supplies. But the unwritten and unspoken laws of Sudan state that anything done for the right reasons will still turn out wrong. In other words: Sudan corrupts.

Rounding out the cast of characters is Quinette Hardin. Quinette is a missionary from small town Iowa who goes on a mission to Africa in part because she wants to serve the Lord, but also because she wants her life to be bigger than the ordinary life she so desperately wishes to escape in Iowa. The mission which the organization she belongs to is to purchase the freedom of slaves taken in tribal warfare, collect their stories, and return them to their homes. It is in this role that Quinette becomes passionate about the need of the people of Sudan and it is also how she comes into contact with the people from Knight Air.

Acts of Faith covers so much ground that the ambition Philip Caputo has for this novel could potentially overwhelm the storytelling: missionaries, love, the slave trade, corruption, jealousy, the United Nations, humanitarian aid, gun running, relief work as business, all the back-stories and emotional baggage of the characters, the civil war in Sudan, and so much more. Caputo has his hands full, and somehow he is able to weave together a coherent story that does not get bogged down in the wealth of detail which he provides. Acts of Faith is so successful at portraying the situation in Sudan and what the effects of the best intentions are in such a situation that the reader can almost taste and smell and sense the world in which these characters so passionately inhabit. This is not just words on a page, but it becomes a real place, more so than simply knowing that Sudan is an actual nation in turmoil. Philip Caputo creates a Sudan the reader can grab a hold of and be touched by. More than simply creating a sense of place, Acts of Faith is a novel which tells a story about the rise and fall of those best intentions in the form of Knight Air and the humanitarian aid that the organization is trying to accomplish.

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