Saturday, August 24, 2013

Review of The Compassionate Warrior: Abd el-Kader of Algeria

Not long after ASHFALL came out, I did a panel presentation at the Indianapolis Youth Literature Conference. Elsa Marston was there and brought her copy of ASHFALL along for me to sign. She asked me a question--I can't remember her exact wording--about why I wrote such a violent book for young adults. I remember thinking yes, that's exactly the right question. I'd already gotten tired of defending the very mild fade-to-black sex scenes in ASHFALL. Sex is a natural part of being human that can both enrich and perpetuate life. The violence in my work, however, still makes me uncomfortable at some level.

The answer, of course, is that I never write down to my audience. In times of resource scarcity, humans are capable of absolutely horrific violence. The real reaction to a disaster of the scope I portray in ASHFALL is likely to be much, much worse than in my books. I suppose I could gloss over the violent scenes the way I do with the sex in my books, allow them to fade-to-black. But that feels dishonest. To take an extreme example, consider which makes a more powerful statement against violence: Saving Private Ryan or the cartoon antics of The Roadrunner? This is part of the reason I'm deeply ambivalent about ASHFALL being made as a movie. To earn a PG-13 rating, a movie would have to be far less graphic than the book. The anti-war message conveyed so powerfully in The Hunger Games is completely lost in the movie version amid the gorgeous--and bloodless--cinematography.

Anyway, Elsa has been a wonderful supporter and perceptive critic of my work right from the beginning. And so I was thrilled to get a copy of her latest book, The Compassionate Warrior: Abd el-Kader of Algeria, in the mail a few weeks ago.

Elsa's book, though written for the middle grade and young adult market, is a thorough and scholarly biography. Elsa holds a master's degree in international affairs from Harvard University and has written more than twenty books for children and teenagers. I knew next to nothing about Abd el-Kader before opening Elsa's book. Here's how the back of the book describes him:
Emir Abd el-Kader (1807 - 1883) . . . led the resistance to the French conquest of Algeria. He was a brilliant military strategist, superb horseman, and renowned Muslim leader. Known for his kindness toward his enemies, he became an international celebrity in his own time. Today he is recognized as a pioneer in interfaith dialogue.
. . . in 1860 in Syria, he saved thousands of innocent Christians from mob violence, earning praise from leaders as diverse as Abraham Lincoln, Pope Pius IX, and Napoleon III.
I particularly appreciate the complexity of Elsa's treatment of el-Kader. She doesn't shy away from the controversial aspects of his life, such as the massacre of two hundred French prisoners of war at a camp in Morocco. While el-Kader did not order the massacre--in fact, he reviled it--it did occur at a camp under his command. Later, while in exile in Syria, el-Kader rescued thousands of Christians from Muslim rioters. The contradictions in el-Kader's life--warrior and scholar, humanitarian and jihadist, Algerian nationalist and Francophile--are part of what makes him so fascinating.

My one criticism of The Compassionate Warrior is that at times it feels almost too scholarly. The book opens with a table of contents, list of illustrations, forward, preface, and prologue. That's twelve pages of material before the reader reaches the meat of the story. And while Elsa does an admirable job covering the breadth of el-Kader's extraordinary life, I wonder if the book might have been even more engaging with less breadth and more depth. For example, several years are summarized in one paragraph on page 51:
For a few years Abd el-Kader held lines of defense--major towns and fortifications--running roughly east and west. All were lost to the French army, however, by the end of 1841. In most cases the inhabitants had been warned to leave in time, so the French found only empty streets and buildings.
As a reader, I'm left imagining the battles and heartbreak glossed over in this bit of narrative summary. That's the sort of thing I would have absolutely loved to read as a fourth grader and still enjoy today. When I opened The Compassionate Warrior, I was hoping for an experience more along the lines of Steve Sheinkin's The Bomb: a solid history written with the immediacy of fiction, with more show and less tell.

I worry that because of its somewhat academic bent, The Compassionate Warrior won't reach as broadly into its target market as it should. It's an important work--one that begs to be read widely. There are 2.6 million Muslims in the U.S.--they need to see themselves in our literature, to find heroes like themselves. And el-Kader is a fabulous hero--a revolutionary warrior in the mold of George Washington, an intellectual champion of liberty like Thomas Paine, and a Gandhiesque defender of human rights.

Non-Muslims, too, need to read this book. The bedrock upon which compassion is built is understanding, and after reading Elsa's book, I have a much better understanding of el-Kader, Algeria, and Islam in general. The Compassionate Warrior is a worthy addition to your library, classroom, or bookshelf. I'll be sending my copy to my wife's classroom to share with her students.

Buy The Compassionate Warrior: Abd el-Kader of Algeria:

Barnes & Noble
The Book Depository

Full disclosure: I received this book from Elsa Marston for free, and I'm proud to consider her a friend and mentor.