Monday, February 21, 2011

Standing at the Crossroads

Every so often comes along a novel that just won't stop haunting me. This time it’s Standing at the Crossroads, by Charles Davis – a novel of Sudan’s “civil war” as seen through the eyes of three very different people. First, there is Kate, a white woman traveling on her own and photographing the atrocities she witnesses as she makes her way across the country. Kate is determined to expose Sudan’s ugly truth to the world in na├»ve hope that someone, somewhere, will care enough to intervene in the slaughter taking place there in God’s name. Next, there is a little girl, almost mute, who has somehow managed to escape the slaughter of her village and is wandering the desert alone, and, finally, there is the book’s narrator, a black African man known to the villagers as “The Story Man” and to whites as “The Barefoot Librarian.”

This barefoot librarian lives and breathes Western novels. In honor of his favorite book, Moby Dick, he introduces himself to the reader as Ishmael, but remarks that he is a witness, not an outsider. Ishmael carries his library on his back, walking from village to village where he reads stories and leaves books behind in exchange for a place to sleep and something to eat. He acquires his books from those Westerners he encounters in the country and is always on the lookout for their castoffs. Hoping to get books from Kate, he approaches her at a crossroads village just as she is threatened by several “Warriors of God,” a group of religious fanatics willing to kill, burn, and mutilate in the name of their brand of religion. By defying the Warriors of God, Ishmael and Kate make a mortal enemy of the group’s leader and, if they are to survive, they will have to walk across the desert, just one step ahead of the men on horseback who want to torture and kill them.

Standing at the Crossroads has all the makings of a first rate thriller but it is more than that. It is the story of a remarkable man who has used the best of Western literature to transform himself into something unique for his time and place. Ishmael is not a religious man; rather, his entire philosophy of life is based upon his fiction reading. This is a man who, while walking what he estimates has been more than 20,000 miles, imagines that his friend Huck Finn or Miss Havisham is walking beside him in friendly conversation. He has a story for every occasion and he knows just when to tell them.

Though it is filled with much tragedy and violence, Standing at the Crossroads still manages to be a “feel good” novel of sorts in that no reader will be able to recall The Barefoot Librarian without indulging in a little mental smile about him. Reading and books are his life in every way. This is a man who adapted the very idea of reading into a survival tool, as when he was burying himself and Kate in sand in order to escape the approaching horsemen:
“I have never done this before, never inhumed myself, but the sensation is familiar, for it is what I have been doing my whole life long with reading, burying myself in books so that I will be invisible to the outside world and the outside world will be invisible to me. Inter yourself one way or another and you will feel safe, however illusory that safety might be.

The horsemen are not readers. If they were readers, they would know that you must pay attention to small details…I hear them pass, conversing in dull, bored voices, perhaps fifty feet from where we are lying, barely daring to breathe.”
This one I will remember for a long time, and I suspect already that it is destined to be one of the best books I read in all of 2011.

Rated at: 5.0
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)


  1. I love books like this. I'm giving this one some precedence on my to-read list.

  2. This book sounds like one I definitely need to read. Thanks for the great review!

  3. "Standing at the Crossroads" is definitely one you want be forgetting soon, guys. Let me know what you think of it.