Caravans by James A. Michener
When it comes to historical fiction, I am of the opinion that nobody has even done it better than James A. Michener. Maybe I am prejudiced because we are both native Pennsylvanians, but on the other hand an objective look at his works certainly makes him one of the most prolific authors in that genre and his analysis of history always amazes me.
In this book “Caravans” we get a look at early Michener. Not his earliest works but one he wrote back in 1963 and before he wrote those well-known and massive works such as “Centennial”, “Chesapeake” and “Texas” and which list goes on and on.
Now here we see early Michener taking a look at the country of Afghanistan in 1946 with a plot that allows him a wide latitude to examine the length and breadth of the countries geographic and cultural histories. The story does not begin with nature, as do most of his works, instead we are introduced to a young US Diplomat named Miller who is stationed in Afghanistan and who is tasked with finding the whereabouts and health of a young woman (Ellen) who dropped out of college ran off with an Afghan citizen who was studying in Philadelphia. The girls’ parents have not heard from her in 13 months and now a US Senator from that state wants to know the status of Ellen.
Armed with this information the diplomat heads out into the Afghan countryside with a trusty Afghan aid and they attempt to find Ellen, which may be more difficult than finding a needle in a haystack! Along the way they encounter many unique Afghan characters and begin to get a taste of their culture. We see Islamic law being applied to both men and women, and also get to understand why certain penalties are meted out (I now know why thieves have their right hands cut off and the meaning behind it).
It is a harsh country both in climate and geography, but Michener is able to capture that, as well as the beauty of the mountains and the magnificent architecture of the Afghans. We also get to go along on a Caravan of nomads whose entire existence is spent crisscrossing the country, and who live and survive on the little they can find on the land.
We also glimpse at the eternal struggle for life that continues to go on in that country. The struggle to modernize, the struggle of religion, of the harshness of life in one of the most majestic area of the world, the struggle to love and to understand the history and culture that continues to rip the country apart. Michener, himself, was witness to much of this during a lengthy trip to the country, and his journey forms the basis for our trek across Afghanistan.
And as with most all of the authors works, we get to a very ambivalent ending. We have discovered what Miller was set off to find, but the end result is never quite as clear cut as we would like. But then again, history is never quite as nice and neat as we might wish, and thankfully we once again see Michener guiding us through a fascinating and complex region of the world, and doing so in such a way that we come away with a much greater appreciation for Afghanistan, along with its peoples, cultures, history, and geography.
This is a highly enjoyable book and one that tends to get overlooked by Michener fans. It is a book that I wish the US State Department and Defense Departments had read and considered before we introduced troops into that country over a decade ago. Michener always seems to leave us with questions to ponder, along with the lessons we have learned along the way, and he certainly has left me with a much greater understanding and appreciation for a country that I still cannot find on a map!
Note: The Kindle edition is filled with typographical errors, it does not diminish the work and since Michener, obviously, had nothing to do with the publishing of this book I did not deduct any * rating from the book.