16 August 2019

A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett

I felt a bit guilty reading this first, because it was Meghan who told me about this book. She also wrote about it in a post we did on upcoming movie adaptations we're excited about. But, I found it for FOUR DOLLARS at Value Village (thank you Marie Kondo) and couldn't resist starting it. It's an incredible true story of a Canadian travel journalist who was held hostage in Somalia for ~15 months.

Amanda Lindhout is from Red Deer, Alberta, and spent a number of years as a waitress in Calgary between long solo trips to foreign countries. An avid National Geographic reader, she would save just enough money to send herself to South America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, you name it, and then come back and start saving again. Eventually she begins a career in photography and journalism, selling stories about international conflicts to publications back in Canada to fund her travels. In 2009, comparing herself to Dan Rather in his infamous hurricane footage that kicked off his career, Lindhout takes a flight to Somalia to cover the wars that were/are happening (I am not up to date in foreign affairs). She is captured with her travel companion early into their trip and held for ransom. That this happened so recently, to someone so 'local', is insane to me.

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. After four years of on-again, off-again travel, I'd been to forty-six countries. A trip over the next border would bring me to forty-seven.

The prologue begins with Lindhout and her travel partner Nigel Brennan as hostages, and then looks back to tell the story. One of my major criticisms of the book is that I think this structure would have been effective continued throughout, as a series of flashbacks, rather than the full story chronologically. My reason being that the time they spend in captivity is SO painful and long, and though I understand that was their lived experience, it made for a really hard second half of the book. From the comfort of my own home and on my own hand-made-without-warrant soapbox about book structure, I would have preferred the time in captivity broken up more.

Amanda Lindhout

My other main criticism is that this book is ghost-written, or whatever the appropriate term is when it's from the first person but that person didn't write it. Lindhout is a travel writer, untrained, sure, but still a writer, and yet she brought Sara Corbett on to tell her story. The whole time I was reading it my experience was tainted, because while I was reading Lindhout's experience, from what was meant to be her voice, I was reminded that they weren't her words. And it weakens the entire weight of it.

Now that I'm done criticizing a project I could never do myself, time to talk about the actual book! Lindhout herself is a very relatable 'narrator'. While I never had the 'travel bug' myself, per se, one of my close friends shares a lot of similarities with Lindhout in that they both work as servers between trips 'abroad'. Lindhout quickly found out that a few months waiting tables at swanky bars in Calgary could fund equal amounts of time travelling, sometimes with friends but often alone. Lindhout seems cool, like someone you'd want to be friends with. She was a free spirit, liked hanging with her girlfriends, was a bit boy-crazy, but maintained her independence. Corbett paints a great picture in a scene where Lindhout cut her friend's hair on a dock after a breakup:

This would become the thing I remembered, a memory I'd lunge for in my mind five years later, when I was locked up and kept alone in a rat-infested room in Somalia, when I was suffering and half starved and my earlier life seemed like a made-up story. This warm early evening on a shimmering satin lake in Guatemala would feel like a fever dream. I would reach back for it, trying to lasso the small details and rope myself closer: Kelly and Sarah with their legs kicked out on the dock, their faces lit orange in the sunset. The way I ran barefoot up to the guesthouse lobby, borrowed a wooden chair and a pair of blunt-edged office scissors from a drawer in the front desk, and asked Kelly one last time if she was sure. There was the fact- refreshingly unimaginable, given that one of my kidnappers had hit me so hard, he'd broken several of my teeth- that the stakes of a haircut ever could have seemed so high. 

Lindhout and Brennan are captured just days into their trip to Somalia. They were being escorted around by a local security firm they'd hired, but even that wasn't enough. We eventually learn that Somalian rebels basically stalk white people who enter Somalia, hoping to kidnap them for ransoms. Some European countries will still pay ransoms for their citizens. IMPORTANT FACT: Canada won't. Somalians don't know the difference until its too late. I've basically been scared of Somalia since I saw Captain Phillips and this book only served to heighten my fear. Corbett often spells out words the way her captors pronounce them to bring readers into the environment. She notes that Lindhout's captors would say "you're in So-maaaah-lee-ah now". Kill me.

From his recliner in their living room, with its old piano and Grandma Jean's collection of ceramic purple roses, my grandfather added, 'I hope you know if you get yourself into trouble, we won't have any money to get you out.' I let his comment float right past.

I don't have a proper breakdown but I'd guess about half the book is about Lindhout's life and travels leading up to captivity, and half is about her experience being held as a hostage. The half where she is a hostage is extremely bleak. I had a hard time with it, hence my recommendation for more of a flashback format earlier. It's incredibly descriptive and brutal. If you have a weak stomach or a sense of empathy that makes you overly emotional, I may even say it's too much. It will be interesting to see how this translates in the movie, what type of rating they go for.

Lindhout and Brennan, smiles suggest pre-hostage situation

The captors want money for Lindhout and Brennan (who is Australian and from a far wealthier family than Lindhout). It's an international news scandal when they're taken, but the Canadian government (and apparently the Australian one also) won't pay ransoms. Instead the RCMP works with their families, hostage negotiators, etc. for over a year to try and find some sort of compromise. The captors continually give deadlines, threatening to kill both hostages if the ransom isn't paid, but then quickly extend the deadlines when they aren't met.

It was a lesson the world had already taught me and was teaching me still. You don't know what's possible until you actually see it.

Over the course of the 15 months Lindhout starves, is raped (often), contracts a number of severe illnesses, is beaten, tied up, and repeatedly threatened. I read somewhere that she also gave birth while held prisoner, yet it's not mentioned at all in the book. When a reporter asked her about it she said some things that had happened to her were so atrocious she'd never speak of them... so the stuff in her book is what she considered 'light'. This content was so so sad and really difficult to read.

Her and Brennan convert to Islam to try and protect themselves, they try and escape, they invent crazy games with imaginations they didn't know they had. Their ability to survive and maintain hope is one of the more impressive aspects of the story. At one point she does consider suicide (honestly, impressively late in the game in my opinion) and I liked this bit of writing from just before:

I had spent hours, many hours, in the last year being hard on myself. I'd chastised myself for the life I'd led, for all the self-indulgent things I'd done. I'd berated myself for having run stupidly into Somalia, for having empty ambitions, for believing I was invincible. I'd been mad at myself for never telling my mother that I forgave her for the ugliness of my childhood. I'd regretted the years I'd spent hating my body, starving it to stay thin. I wanted another chance to do all of it better, but now I accepted that it wouldn't come.

I can only dream of the perspective and clarity you must gain after 15 months held hostage in Somalia, feeling like you should just put an end to things.

Lindhout's relationship with Brennan is something I was fascinated with for a lot of the book. They meet in Africa before she even starts her journalism career and end up having a whirlwind romance but after a number of long-distance challenges, and a girlfriend Brennan lied about, they end up just being friends. Lindhout invites Brennan to join her in Somolia to help her with some of the bills, but also to give him a kick in the ass, knowing he wanted to pursue a journalism career as well.

Lindhout and Brennan, no idea when, but clearly after their conversion to Islam

I personally found Brennan to be a massive pussy. I realize there are two versions of every story, but from what I read I would have been horrified for him to be my partner in captivity. When they're initially taken it's Lindhout who does all the communicating with her captors, as well as begging them for their safety AND reassuring baby Brennan who had apparently gone mute. Rather than reassure Lindhout throughout their time in captivity, he encourages her to write letters to her family that he can pass along when she is killed, and when they are caught and punished for an incident I don't want to spoil, he asks Lindhout to "just take this one", since she was already being blamed. What kind of guy / friend / partner / human does that?

I wondered sometimes whether it would have been easier if Nigel and I had not been in love once, if instead we'd been two strangers on a job. I knew the house he lived in, the bed he'd slept in, the face of his sister, his friends back home. I had a sense of what he longed for, which made me feel everything doubly.

I was disgusted with Brennan for pretty much the whole second half of the book, so much so that even his attempts to be sweet and provide emotional stimulation for Lindhout I read as self-motivated. I read recently that Brennan released his own book called Price of a Life about this  same incident. I'd be interested in reading his side of the story if I didn't already hate him. In the same article I read that he and Lindhout no longer speak. Good.

Despite being disappointed about the ghost writer, I've already recommended this book to several people. It's such a fascinating story about something so recent and close to home. I think a lot of people would be interested to read it in advance of the movie as well (which still seems very, very early production days). As I mentioned, however, it's a difficult read and not for the faint of hearts. I really enjoyed reading it. I love learning, I loved the descriptive language, and I loved Lindhout's character. She was so strong and inspiring for me as I am essentially a human gummy bear, and if nothing else everyone will at least feel wowed by her perseverance.

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