The first discussion for my Serious Book Club is here! If you saw this post, you’d know I started a book club in DC with some friends dubbed the Serious Book Club because we seriously talk about the books. However, during our first book club, we decided that it will have to be the Serious Book and Wine Club because of the amount of wine consumed.
Our first book was A House In The Sky by Amanda Lindhout (and co-author Sara Corbett). If you haven’t heard of the book or the story, the gist is that Amanda and her friend/boyfriend Nigel Brennan were kidnapped while in Somalia and held hostage for 460 days. And — SPOILER ALERT — she was tortured and raped.
This entire post is a spoiler alert so if you haven’t read the book and want to, stop reading now, pin the image above so you don’t forget to come back and comment on it later!
The book wasn’t new book but it was something I’d been wanting to read for a long time and no one in the book club had read it yet. I read the book in one day. Literally lying on the chaise lounge part of my sectional. I think it took me about 6-7 hours to read (I read fast). After finishing the book I immediately downloaded Nigel’s book The Price of Life: A True Story of Kidnap and Ransom, and promptly read that book in a matter of days.
This post is a discussion of the book (I want you to pipe in!), my thoughts, things discussed among the ladies in my book club, and for all of you who want to “join the club” please write your thoughts about the book and answer any of these questions in the comments! I might even add some of your comments in to the post!
Some of these questions are from the Simon & Schuster Reading Group Guide, some are just my personal questions.
1 // Amanda wrote: “Like a lot of backpackers, I was a country counter. We were always looking to improve our numbers. Listing the number of countries we’d visited gave us a way to measure ourselves. Most country counters kept quiet about their numbers until they got over thirty.” Are you a country counter?
Meg: I wouldn’t say that I’m a country counter exactly. I don’t go to a country to “get my numbers higher” and had never heard of this saying before this book. However, I do want to go all over the world so whatever that number ends up being, fine. I don’t know the number off the top of my head but it’d probably be around 15 right now.
2 // What did you think of Amanda’s decision to travel to such a dangerous place? Especially since she mentioned wanting to be a journalist and knowing that she wouldn’t have much competition in Somalia.
Meg: I think there are two sides to this. First off, I’m always a cheerleader for anyone who figures out what they want to do and just goes for it. Sometimes being a little naive is good. I hear so many very successful entrepreneurs say that because they were naive, they didn’t listen to people who were trying to stop them, hold them back, advise them otherwise, and therefore they did some crazy amazing things. So I don’t think it’s all bad to be a little naive.
I think her excitement and willingness to just dive in and try to do journalism without any experience or education is something that I can respect. If you didn’t get a formal education then you have to learn by doing. Personally I think her enthusiasm and work ethic is hard to hate on. Good for her for putting herself out there. Until this book she wasn’t very successful with it, so it’s hard to keep putting yourself out there, and I respect that.
On the other hand, being naive to how serious (bad) the situation was in Somalia is an example of a situation to not be naive in. For Nigel as well. He knew even less about the religion and customs. He’s lucky Amanda knew as much as she did.
And as someone with a degree in journalism, I think that it’s a lot harder than it looks or seems to the outside world to be a journalist. Especially in the digital age, and when people blame things on “the media” it pisses me off on a personal level — I AM THE MEDIA! I know they are usually referring to what producers choose to feature on the 24/7 news/political cycles, but it still irks me. So while I find her willingness to jump into journalism respectable, I feel like she should have just tried to do more quality reporting — build a resume and get some experience — before trying to “get a big story” to “be successful.”
She mentions how Dan Rather got his big break by covering Hurricane Carla in 1961 and changed how hurricanes (and weather) was covered from then on. Apparently Amanda felt like she needed a Dan Rather moment to gain quick success and to me, I just felt like there needed to be some hard work before that. A lot of people and journalists work for years and years before “getting a big break.” So for her to seek one out so early on in her journalism career (9 months) by doing something really dangerous just seems to embody the argument that millennials want their dream job now (I realize this is a generalization of millennials but that’s another post for another time), without doing the years of work to build up experience.
3 // Do you think you would have been able to handle/live through everything that she did?
Meg: If I was in the same situation because I made the same naive decision to go to Somalia and I had the same knowledge about Islam that Amanda did, I would hope I could survive what she went through. I think she was very clever in the things she did during her captivity. She did bold things I’m not sure I would have done or would have thought to do. So while I would hope I could live through it, I don’t know if I would have been as outspoken, or as brave, or as strong as she was.
Physically I haven’t the slightest idea how I would have reacted. I think women have a higher pain tolerance than they think they do, but I think that mine has gone downhill and the torture she went though, wow. I just, I don’t know. But I don’t think I would have killed myself. Things would have had to have been worse than they were for her for me to have done that, and what happened to her was really really bad. I guess, like her, I would always hold on to some type of hope. Plus, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have killed her because of their religion unless they found out she was faking her conversion to Islam.
4 // Would you have tried to escape? Did you think what they did was a good idea/bad idea?
Meg: This is such a hard question because I think if the imam (the prayer leader) at the mosque would have been there at the time, maybe things would have gone differently. While some of the people helped at first (I mean that woman!) they just let their captors take them back without a fight. Had the imam been there, I think maybe he wouldn’t have let them be taken back. So I think the escape was possibly worth trying, but was so dangerous and you just never know what could happen, and in their case it went bad, and then their treatment was much worse afterward.
At the same time, how can you not try to escape if you were being held for 5 months? Like mentally, you’d always wonder, what if we had tried to escape? So I don’t know if it was good or bad in their case.
5 // Amanda’s time in captivity is spent trying to negotiate the best way to stay alive—she vacillates between trying to understand and connect with her captors, through things like converting to Islam, and resistance like trying to escape. Why do you think Amanda and Nigel have such different takes how to best manage their captivity? What do you think are some of the advantages and disadvantages of each method?
Meg: I think that Amanda was smart in her negotiations and converting to Islam so early. I think trying to befriend the captors only worked in their favor. I don’t think Nigel knew what to do.
6 // Amanda reflects throughout the book on the strangeness of the relationships with her captors—even though they were imprisoning her, she attempted to feel compassion and understanding for them. Were you surprised that this was possible?
Meg: I think most humans at some point in this experience would try to see the captors as humans in some capacity. They were so young, they didn’t really know much different. If you put yourself in the world they grew up in, what was taught to them, the poverty they lived in, I think that her sympathy for them was understandable. It seemed like all of the people, mentors, father-figures, they had to look up to and teach them were corrupt and awful. Also, after 15 months you are just starved for connection with anyone. It was a helpful way to pass time by trying to talk to her captors and understanding them was helpful to her survival.
7 // Nigel and Amanda’s relationship as fellow captives is at times extremely difficult. How did you feel when Nigel told Amanda to “just take this one”? Did you blame Nigel?
Meg: While reading, you could tell that Nigel was mad at Amanda for the first few months. He obviously blamed her and was a lot more sensitive and less capable to deal with the emotions of the situation. Amanda was much stronger in the beginning (and throughout the entire experience). He chose to go to Somalia, he chose not to research proper security so his decision to go is on him. He realized that later and explained it in his own book.
I think when he said “just take this one” he probably should have taken some blame to ease things for Amanda. His treatment wasn’t nearly as bad as hers.
8 // Discuss Amanda’s “house in the sky” (p. 292). How does this dream help her maintain hope, and survive?
Meg: I know Amanda needed to name this book something, but I didn’t really feel like her house in the sky was as much a prominent part of the book as I was assuming it would be. Obviously it’s where she told her mind to go when she was mentally trying to escape her situation. I think I just thought it would be a bit more prominent in the book. I feel like that detail, being the name of the book, could have come together a little more or in a better way. It seemed to me like she was probably talking about details of her experience with Sara (the co-author), mentioned this house in the sky thing, and Sara saw that as the perfect name when it wasn’t really that big of a thing. I don’t know I’m making that up, but that’s just what it felt like to me, sort of an afterthought detail.
However, having read Nigel’s book as well, it was obvious how well-written Amanda’s book was. I think going with a publisher and having a co-writer (Sara Corbett) was a very smart decision. The story flowed very well.
9 // How did reading A House in the Sky change your understanding of the role fundamentalist religion can play in a war-torn society? How did it change your perception of Somalia? What surprised you most in your reading?
Meg: I wasn’t surprised about the religion’s role in the society. I think that narrative is covered a lot in media these days. And the past few years Somalia has been covered a lot as well, so none of this surprised me. I was actually shocked the National Geographic guys where there too. I’m also shocked Amanda has been back to Somalia! I feel like there would be no amount of security that could get me to go back so soon while the country is still so unstable.
I think the thing that surprised me the most was how afraid the captors were of other people taking Amanda and Nigel. They would always threaten to sell them to the Al-Shabab, but I think there was also a threat of them being taken by others just like them, which is why they had to move around to different houses all the time.
I think the disorganization of the captors was interesting. I don’t know that I would have assumed it be more organized but it just seemed so unorganized, and more so after I read Nigel’s book.
One thing I still want to know is what happened to the women who threw herself onto Amanda!?!
10 // Did reading A House in the Sky make you want to read Nigel’s book to understand his perspective?
Meg: Considering I immediately downloaded his book and read it in a matter of days, yes.
Having read Nigel’s book, The Price of Life, I have some additional thoughts.
First of all, having read A House in the Sky, I don’t know how anyone wouldn’t not want to read his book. I was so curious to hear his experience and from his point of view.
Secondly, his book is written by him, his sister, and his sister-in-law, who both played a large part in the negotiations and release of Amanda and Nigel. It’s obvious they didn’t have an editor (or a very good one) as there are a lot of mistakes in the book and it was poorly written. However, it is also very raw and honest at the same time. So while it’s not well written it was still fascinating and I don’t hold it against them!
Besides just learning his perspective of the experience, understanding what went on between the families and how hard it was on them and the logistics of the negotiations, working with the governments of Canada (Amanda) and Australia (Nigel) and the captors, fundraising money, getting the money safely to Somalia — fascinating.
Amanda mentions nothing of this in her book so I loved to hear this side of it. I don’t want to spoil it for you if you want to read it but it really helps explain how the logistics of these things work — for Canada and Australia at least.
I also find it very interesting that Amanda and Nigel don’t talk anymore. I seems like it had a lot to do with the families, and publicly they seem to only say nice things about each other. I think it was really hard on Nigel’s family as, from their perspective, they did most of the work to get them out. They raised most of the money and took all the risk in getting the money to Somalia. Not my business, just curious. In interviews I’ve watched of her it seems like she’s open to communication.
Another question I have (which is none of my business but we are discussing this book so I’m throwing it out there) is, are Amanda and her family going to try to pay back at least half of the total amount of the ransom money to Nigel’s? Did she make enough with the book to do that? Was Nigel able to pay anyone else back? From his book I think I remember that her family only raised $100,000 of the $600,000+ it took to get them out ($1.3 million in AUS in 2009). Like I said, not my business, but I’m curious.
Amanda doesn’t go into too much detail about how the kidnappers intended to take the two guys from National Geographic, but I learned more from this article where one of the men, Robert Draper, explains the story from his perspective. I definitely recommend reading it.
If you read the book I hope you will tell me your thoughts in the comments!
Want to join in on next month’s book? I’ll be publishing the post on the next book in mid-February.
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Photos by Meg Biram