Book: ‘A House in the Sky’ by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett.
I’ve already established that I see reading as an adventure in its own right. I especially love reading books about adventures that other people have experienced and how their lives were changed by extraordinary events, either by choice or by force, the latter of which is the case with Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout in her memoir, ‘A House in the Sky.’
The book chronicles Amanda’s 15 months spent in captivity as a hostage of a militant Islamic group in war-torn Somalia, along with the events and choices she made that led to her violent kidnapping at age 27. Her story is both terrifying and captivating at the same time. While I was horrified at the hideous conditions in which she was held, I also couldn’t put this book down for fear that if I didn’t reach the end and find out how she managed to be freed, she’d never escape the hell-on-earth she was trapped in. I’m not sure if it was because she was the same age during her captivity that I am now or maybe I saw a bit of myself in her adventurous spirit, but I felt so connected to this story that half way through, I was committed to finishing this book as soon as humanly possible. I’m serious – I tearfully turned the last page while on my lunch break sitting with my crew at a Tex Mex restaurant yesterday!
The story begins with Amanda’s troubled childhood in Canada, one that was filled with significant family and financial struggles that she countered with dreams of far away places inspired by old issues of National Geographic. As a young adult, Amanda traveled emphatically and often, only returning to her hometown long enough to save up enough money waitressing to fund her next trip backpacking in another remote corner of the world. She traveled to South America, Africa, and beyond, finding herself drawn to locations that were increasingly more dangerous, including Afghanistan and Iraq, where she sought out freelance journalist work to keep herself funded while on the road.
Amanda’s extreme wanderlust, along with her desire to draw attention to social issues in places where most journalists dared not venture, led to her decision to visit Somalia in August of 2008. Alongside Nigel Brennan, an Australian photojournalist and her former lover, Amanda arrived in Mogadishu with only a vague awareness of how dangerous a place she was in as a white woman from a Western country, and how tempting of a target she was.
Three days later, armed gunman ambushed her party’s car outside of the city and the group was taken hostage by Islamic militants. The resulting captivity, which lasted over fifteen months, is vividly recounted by Amanda, who used every opportunity she had to ingratiate herself with her captors and attempt to draw the humanity she initially believed was inside them to the surface. For the first part of their ordeal, Nigel and Amanda were kept in the same room, converting to Islam together in hopes of receiving better treatment from their captors and passing the time speaking about their pasts and the dreams they had for their freedom, when, if ever, that day came.
Soon, however, the two were separated for one reason or another, commencing a downward spiral for Amanda in the form of rape and other physical abuse, starvation, and emotional abuse from her captors, who blamed her for their own hopeless situation. After a dramatic failed escape attempt, the two were relocated and Amanda found herself in a pitch-black, windowless room, where she was forced to spend day and night lying on one side, forbidden from rolling on her back or sitting up except for meals, prayer and using the bathroom.
This book has a lot of takeaways that are worth noting. For example, it offers a rare insiders’ look at the situation in Somalia and the desperation and violence its people endure daily. Amazingly, Amanda shows compassion towards her captors, especially the young “boys” that guarded her, some of which were smiley and hopeful while others were violent and vengeful. Her account gives some insight into what drives these hostage takers in “the most dangerous country on earth” and how their desperate situation leads youngsters to take up arms with militant groups in exchange for (somewhat) regular meals and a promise of a sum of money that would otherwise be impossible to obtain. A similar sentiment was expressed in this year’s Oscar-nominated film ‘Captain Phillips’ when Tom Hanks’ character said to his pirate captors, “There must be something other than being a fisherman and kidnapping people,” to which the Somali replied, “Maybe in America.”
Reading this book as an American with a well-paying job, four walls around me and the ability to live freely without worrying about starving or being surrounded by violence on a daily basis, I felt an enormous sense of gratitude. I’m grateful that I’m able to sit here in a warm hotel room and write for a blog meant to encourage people to seek adventure in their lives. I’m incredibly lucky that a fear of falling into a routine of safe but uneventful boredom is the biggest problem I face in my life on a daily basis. Judging by the fact that you’re reading this, you probably feel the same.
More so than the insight into life in Somalia and the sense of gratitude reading this book encourages, ultimately Amanda’s story showed me how, though life is full of experiences both wonderful and horrible, no matter how far into the darkness people are thrust, they can emerge stronger and filled with more purpose and hope than ever before. Through the darkest hours spent in the last months of her captivity, including an episode of intense torture from her captors who had grown desperately tired of waiting for their pay day, Amanda was able to dig deeply into her soul and excavate small slivers of hope that carried her through. She’d escape in her mind to a beautiful and perfect “house in the sky” that she’d mentally built while enduring months of unthinkable physical and psychological anguish. It was this mental and emotional strength, above all the other important lessons of this book, that captivated me the most about Amanda’s story.
After finishing the book, because I’m a massive nerd, I immediately had to Google Amanda to find out what she has been up to. Since her ordeal, Amanda has since started the Global Enrichment Foundation, an organization dedicated to empowering women in developing and conflict-ridden countries, including Somalia. She has dedicated her life to help people find hope in places where many believe it cannot be found. How amazing is that?
Unfortunately, while reading up on Amanda’s most recent activity, I came across a few a few articles and columns that were critical of not only her book, but of her story itself. Reading these criticisms made me almost physically ill – how could people read this story and not be touched that a fellow human being was willing to relive an incredibly painful ordeal so that others could see what the human spirit is capable of? A very well-written article by Lauren Wolfe for The Nation chronicles some of these negative reactions to Amanda’s story of survival and how she still faces a different kind of abuse today from unfair critics that claim she was somehow ‘asking for it’ by traveling to a place like Somalia as a white woman cursed with a pretty face and a naive but eager desire to draw attention to important issues that fellow humans faced there.
Ultimately, Amanda Lindhout is a woman who took something horrible that happened to her and she turned it into a personal mission to make the world a better place. And that is absolutely nothing to scoff at. On the contrary – her strength, resilience and hope is incredibly inspiring. Just as seeking adventure in your life can open your eyes, awaken your spirit and shift your perspective on the world around you, so can books like this. While ‘A House In The Sky’ chronicles some of the worst atrocities that human beings can impose on one another, it is also a beautiful example of how the human spirit can overcome even the worst of circumstances and find peace, forgiveness, purpose, and hope in the depths of unimaginable darkness.