Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Book Review - Acts of Faith

This is a review of a novel, Acts of Faith, by Philip Caputo. It was published by Vintage Books, NY, in 2005.

This novel set in Kenya and Sudan revolves around humanitarian efforts to aid stricken people in war torn southern Sudan. That is a large topic and author Caputo strives to include something for everyone. For example, the cast of characters include a jaundiced Kenyan soccer player searching for meaning; a vivacious white settler, who out of guilt, engages in good works; cynical mercenary pilots; a dew-eyed young missionary overwhelmed with Africa; a driven evangelist who is also a sharp businessman; a romantic SPLA commander and an Africa-seasoned, wise priest. There are many others, but those are central to the various plots that swirl around.

Themes in the novel include the logistics and economics of food aid, gun running, Kenyan bureaucratic corruption, slavery in Sudan, redemption by external Christian groups, sensationalist journalism, Janjaweed raids, the awful impact of warfare upon civilian populations, love, and lust.

The setting in Lokichokio (the gritty northwestern Kenyan base for Sudanese relief operations), Nairobi, and the Nuba mountains is authentic. Obviously well researched, Caputo realistically captures the feeling of the places that he describes well. Swahili usage was minimal, but accurate.

The reader will be overwhelmed as the various threads of stories make their appearance, but eventually they do coalesce into a coherent stream. The characters too start off as stereotypical profiles, but as the story moves along they too fill out and become more realistic.

The fate of the characters and the thrust of the plot aside, underlying questions being addressed in this novel are those of the utility and/or futility of western aid in catastrophic situations. Does such aid really help? Is it manipulated for private gain? Just what is the cost of such business? Morally, what is acceptable? And how to sort out motives? Does why folks engage really matter to recipients or only to the donor? Caputo does not provide any direct answers to such questions, but he does lay issues so that readers might consider them.

In conclusion, this was quite a readable and entertaining novel, indeed even a must read for those engaged in humanitarian operations or missionary undertakings.

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