History, of course, can be endlessly fascinating. But one need not canvas very many bored students of history to find that it can also be endlessly dreary and soporific.
The reason for this is quite clear. History (sadly) is for the most part presented as a tiresome list of dates and events. Accompanying analysis is typically written in a technical, scholarly, textbook mode with no attempt to add colour, flair, atmosphere, background, context or the excitement that is history's due. The list of authors that can turn pure non-fiction history with absolutely no fictional embellishment into exciting reading with the page turning force of modern day thrillers is pathetically short. Simon Winchester, Roland Huntford, Jon Krakauer and Canada's Ken McGoogan and Pierre Berton, for example, make it onto my personal short list.
With the publication of "Into Africa", the epic adventures of Henry Morton Stanley and Dr David Livingstone and their explorations of colonial Victorian Africa, Martin Dugard has added his name to this short list of skillful authors capable of keeping a history reader awake into the wee hours.
"Into Africa" presents the unimaginably complex biography of the legendary journalist and African explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, and his search across treacherous African terrain for the missing British hero, Dr David Livingstone. The ending of the story, the anti-climactic meeting in a remote African village and Stanley's utterance of the fabulously understated "Doctor Livingstone, I presume?" is well known. But the story ... my, my, my! "Into Africa" is a powerful paean to the indomitable, persevering nature of the human spirit of exploration and discovery. Dugard combines disease, danger, treachery, colonial politics, tribal warfare, wild animals, challenging terrain, racism, slavery, greed, love, courage, lust and even blind stupidity into a compelling and endlessly fascinating narrative that begins and then finishes all too quickly.
Dugard has also taken the time to carefully place these events into the context of other events taking place around the world at the same time - the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars in Europe, the American Civil War, Karl Marx's publication of "Das Kapital", Franklin's hapless exploration of the Canadian Arctic, the competitive nature of British and American journalism, the appalling state of the slave trade across Central Africa, cameo appearances in America's frontier west by Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hitchcock, and, of course, the political shenanigans that drove the otherwise exemplary achievements of the Royal Geographical Society.
I'll wager a fiver against almost any potential reader that they really had no idea at all of the colourful background and story of Henry Morton Stanley's life before Africa!
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About the reviewer
Paul Weiss (cpw1952)
A modern day dilettante with widely varied eclectic interests. A dabbler in muchbut grandmaster of none - wilderness camping in all four seasons, hiking, canoeing, world travel,philately, … more
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