Monday, October 27, 2008

Sands Of the Kalahari by William Mulvihill

The Sands of the Kalahari by William Mulvihill
HB ed., G.P. Putnam's Sons,
Copyright 1960

Take a plane crash in the remote reaches of the Kalahari desert and pit six people (five men and one woman) against each other, and you may have the best psychological survival novel since "Lord of the Flies."

"He found himself thinking of baboons constantly. A dead baboon was better than a live one. It was one less belly to fill. If all of them were dead there would be no competition for the meager food resources of the mountain. There was nothing he could do that was as important as killing baboons. The others could look for honey and lizards and melons. He would kill."

"The Sands of the Kalahari" throw the six strangers into an environment where for them the outside world has ceased. They are stripped bare "into the primitive," having to depend on their inner abilities and suspicious faith in their fellow man. Unable to unite to better the predicament, competition forces them to struggle for leadership, the meager food supplies, and the woman. Mulvihill provides no standout main character, instead all six play an equally important part in the story. The real protagonist is the harsh desert wasteland, an entity that we can't have sympathy for.

Survival is most important, so members cautiously align themselves. The girl, Grace Monckton, quickly attaches herself to O'Brien, the hunter of the group. Being a man of strength and instinct, O'Brien can provide and protect her from the others. Three venture (or are forced) out to trek through the desert to find salvation. Fate awaits them all. Grimmelmann, an old German war survivor, has desert living knowledge, but his turbulent conflicts with O'Brien come at a cost. Guilt and pity torment the failed pilot, Sturdevant. And possibly the most dramatic of them all is a black American scholar by the name of Jefferson Smith, who's black African history is slammed into him in this 20th century world. Last is Mike Bain, another American who is unprepared to meet the challenge and overcome his weakness in bravery.

Beside the struggles between themselves, they share the desert mountain area with a group of baboons, competing for the scarce available food. Eating baboon is a form of cannibalism to the group, so using them as a food source is out of the question. Instead O'Brien sets out to eliminate the primates. This changes the balance of things, because eons of evolution to adapt and endure make the baboons stronger than any rifle.

William Mulivhill's novel contains strong characters and a powerful survival narrative. Underneath it is a psychological thriller, where we wonder if you first have to be lost to find oneself. A fantastic ending, not one that the reader would expect. A novel that I thoroughly enjoyed. "The Sands of the Kalahari" was so successful for William Mulvihill, that all of his other novels were forever overshadowed by it.

"He found a place to sleep and lay looking up at the great sky. How far was this from a city with electric lights and automobiles? How many miles, how many years, how many centuries?"


David Cranmer said...

Yes, a great novel and a fairly good film starring Stuart Whitman. You are right about it overshadowing his other books because I don't think I ever read another one.

Unknown said...

Strange how someone that was once an household name can be forgotten so easily.

Jason L said...

Just finishing up this novel now and I have to thank you for giving it some profile. A really intriguing story.

Looking forward to the surprise ending.

Pappy said...

I know this comment is 8 years after your review, but I just finished the novel and agree about the power of the story. I did notice that you have continued the error of many others by confusing the title, Sands of Kalahari, with the title of the movie.