Reading Matters blog

Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

My Choose Your Own learnable moment

I had hardly ever tried writing fiction before I got asked to write a book for the Choose Your Own Adventure series in 1992. I learned a big lesson, doing that; and I learned it, not for the last time, from a kid.

I was a freelance writer, then as now, and I had about given up on writing books. My first, a ten-year nonfiction project, had been rejected 75 times, and I’d produced three more manuscripts that no one wanted either. I had a divorce to cope with and a little boy to love and was doing my best just to hold things together when I got a call from Ray Montgomery, the Vermont writer and entrepreneur whose series of innovative, interactive novels for young readers by then had over 130 titles, by Ray and a number of other writers.

As I remember it, Ray said, “I proposed a book about a planet that gets forgotten. That’s all I know. Can you write it? It’s due in a month. We’ll pay you $2,000.”

I had never even read science fiction. But it was the holidays, $2,000 was good money for me, and this would surely be more fun than the nonprofit newsletters and annual reports I was mostly turning out. So I wrote a draft of The Forgotten Planet (Bantam, 2003).

My nephew Chris was up visiting on his holiday break, and I asked if he’d read the draft. He was 12 or 13, a good reader. He said yes, and after he'd finished it I asked, a little nervously, “What did you think?”

“Well, it’s okay, Uncle Doug,” he said, “but you don’t die anywhere.” I said, “Oh, I don’t want you to die.” (Choose books have multiple threads and you have to come up with a number of endings. So I had thought about this.)

He said, “No, you don’t understand. If you don’t die, it’s no fun.”

Well! Over the years I’ve done 10 Choose books (Ray passed away a couple of years ago, but the series is still going through Chooseco, the indie publisher he and his writer wife Shannon created). I’ve had you shot down in a space-fighter battle, killed by pink-dolphin poachers in the Amazon, killed in a shipboard sword fight, shot in the back trying to escape from Robert E. Lee’s headquarters camp at Gettysburg, even dematerialized and injected into a stream of electrons, though I can’t remember in which book that last one happened. (Or why.)

What I learned from Chris is that stories need risk. Something should be at stake. Teachers often talk about stories needing conflict, but I believe that’s too narrow. I think more about tension. What creates it, what deepens it, how is it resolved? Something is at risk, whether it’s the world or one heart. The reader needs to care.

Stories are life, and lives are stories. “If you don’t die ... it’s no fun.”

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John Lewis’s MARCH and the soul of resistance

Ninety years ago this month, a young reporter for the Chicago Tribune flew from Europe, where he’d been covering the rise of fascism, to India to write about the “peculiar revolution” that was gathering there. He met its leader, a spindly, bright-eyed little man who sat making thread for homespun cotton.

“How could so humble a man, I wondered,” William L. Shirer wrote in Gandhi: A Memoir, “spinning away with his nimble fingers on a crude wheel as he talked, have begun almost single-handedly to rock the foundations of the British Empire, aroused a third of a billion people to rebellion against foreign rule, and taught them the technique of a new revolutionary method — non-violent civil disobedience — against which Western guns and Eastern lathis [police batons] were proving of not much worth. ... So I simply said: ‘How have you done it?’

“‘By love and truth,’ he smiled. ‘In the long run no force can prevail against them.’”

I found Shirer’s memoir when I was scouring my bookshelves during the shutdown for something to read. He was the first Western journalist to spend time and talk closely with Gandhi, who spent over 2,000 days in British jails before his nation finally won its freedom in 1947, entirely through nonviolent resistance. That inspirited liberation movements in Asia, Africa and elsewhere that altogether freed some 13 nations and almost 1.7 billion people from white colonial rule.

Last week I read March, John Lewis’s graphic-novel trilogy about his life in the American civil rights movement. Martin Luther King and his fellow early leaders of the movement adopted Gandhi’s approach to resistance, which the Indian leader called “soul force.” As a student in Nashville, Lewis found a workshop on nonviolence in a Black Baptist church, where he “met people who opened my eyes to a sense of values that would forever dominate my moral philosophy — the way of peace, the way of love, the way of non-violence.”

It’s a beautiful trilogy, soul-stirring and deeply informative. And last week, like so many others, I read the valedictory op-ed Lewis wrote for the New York Times. Having visited a Black Lives Matter protest in D.C. the day before entering the hospital for the last time, he recalled hearing Dr. King decades earlier on an old radio. “He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out.

“In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”

I have no stature to add anything to this. I just hope we’re on the way, as a nation, to choosing the path these great men opened.

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The power of reading locally

I live in a smallish town, a college town, where we have one of the country’s remaining excellent weekly newspapers, the Addison Independent. For the past several weeks, everywhere I’ve gone in Middlebury — and I do mean everywhere — people have asked, “How are you? Are you better?”

There’s a connection there. And it showed me, yet again, how much having a local paper, reading a local paper, can mean.

I had covid-19 in April. The Independent heard about it in early May, and I got an email from John McWright, the news editor. He asked, “Would you be interested in talking to a reporter about your experience with the virus and the disease? We've been wondering how to get across to readers the idea that it is still a serious thing and they shouldn't let their guard down too soon.” I said, sure.

I knew I was in good hands from the long, detailed phone interview I had with veteran reporter John Flowers. I’ve had the sinking feeling of talking to a reporter who wasn’t really listening, then rightly dreading the result — but John’s story, which led page one in the May 14 issue, was careful, thorough and precise. Not cringeworthy at all.

Except. When I saw my face on top of the paper in its rack in the drugstore I wondered, What'll happen now? Next time I step into a store, will someone rush up with arms waving, saying “No no! Not you!”

What happened was the opposite. For weeks to come, every place I went into in town, someone asked if I was better. “How are you feeling? I saw that story in the paper.” At the hardware store, the food coop, a gas station in the middle of the night. Everywhere. I got so used to it, I kind of miss it now.

This week the New York Times reviewed a new book, Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy. In the face of fake news, the paper said, “What [author Margaret] Sullivan writes about is a ‘real-news problem’ — the shuttering of more than 2,000 American newspapers since 2004, and the creation of ‘news deserts,’ or entire counties with no local news outlets at all.”

I have enormous respect for the people who fill the local papers we still have. I couldn’t hack the work, myself; I still have nightmares that I’m back at the weekly I was hired to start, at age 28, with a staff of one reporter and 30 pages to fill. I bailed after two years ... but that paper is still coming out. Like the Independent, it’s what you read to find out, these days, how people are coping, what help is available where, and what they’re going to do about the schools.

And sometimes there’s more. Sometimes a local paper shows you what it means to live in a community, one that includes everyone. That’s a great thing to have. And a sad thing to lose.

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A story that speaks quietly, across scary times

In a time so frightening for so many reasons, I bought the one book I hadn’t read by a writer I’ve loved, as so many have. He wrote this story at another time of fear and upheaval and anger, righteous and otherwise. What he wrote doesn’t address any of those troubles. Or maybe, in the writer’s own way, it does.

Last week I read E.B. White’s third and final children’s book, The Trumpet of the Swan.

It was 1969, and White was 69, when he submitted his manuscript for Trumpet. He and his wife Katherine were both in poor health, especially Katherine, and his country was in turmoil, over war, civil rights and a bitter generational clash. He’d been worried about providing for Katherine, though Charlotte’s Web of 1952 was still a bestseller. Had it not been for his worries, according to Scott Elledge’s fine biography, White might have held onto the new book longer and rewritten it more, as he had the previous two. But he went ahead; and it came out in 1970, the year we got Nixon.

Here’s what I found. Trumpet is not a wonderwork, like Charlotte, and it won’t be a treasured personal favorite, like Stuart Little ... but it’s interesting. I suspect that White, as he worked, may have had in his mind what he wanted to leave us. He put together a story whose characters — Louis the voiceless trumpeter swan, his practical mother and bloviating father, and Sam the boy who loves wild places and all creatures— are not, to me at least, terribly convincing. White's third novel again lightheartedly dispenses with the gap between what an animal can do and what it might do, if it were more like us: Louis compensates for his muteness by learning to write on a chalkboard and to play the trumpet, the latter so well that he has a short, lucrative musician’s career.

But really, these characters and the story itself feel like overlays on what this quiet, thoughtful writer was sharing with us, one last time: his attentive, abiding love of nature and its creatures, and of music, which he hadn’t written much about before. Much as Stuart ends with exploring for its own sake and backyards worth finding out about, Trumpet concludes with this:

“Darkness settled on woods and fields and marsh. A loon called its wild night cry. As Louis relaxed and prepared for sleep, all his thoughts were of how lucky he was to inhabit such a beautiful earth, how lucky he had been to solve his problems with music, and how pleasant it was to look forward to another night of sleep and another day tomorrow, and the fresh morning, and the light that returns with the day.”

We are all still creatures of this lovely earth. Whatever happens, we can still hear its music, and its light returns again each morning. I like thinking about that. It’s a gift.

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A fine old river journey comes alive again

I got covid in April (I'm fine now, yay), and during the two weeks I was sick and the long, up-and-down recovery that followed, I read and read and read. The library was closed so I kept on scouring my shelves, and the book I’m most grateful to have found is a novel about journeying down the Mississippi River in post-Civil War America. I had loved it after my dad, who was a great reader, gave it to me at about 12 — then I found it again a while ago, in a wonderful used-book store here in Middlebury, Vt. It’s not Huckleberry Finn, it’s Robert Lewis Taylor’s 1961 Journey to Matecumbe.

Matecumbe is kin to Huck not just in its geography but also as a treatment of racism. Huck’s raft-mate the runaway slave Jim is sympathetic and smart, a bold portrayal for a white author of the time; Taylor’s young narrator Davey is on the run from Kentucky with his Confederate veteran Uncle Jim, after they’ve violently blocked the Ku Klux Klan from burning out a Black landowner and his family. Both novels are bright and vivid yarns, with deep humor, abiding humanity and one escapade after another — and both sketch memorable scenes on the great river.

“We were under way by dawn nearly every morning,” Taylor’s Davey relates. “The river has a good smell then; wet, and fishy, and cool, but sometimes a little too fishy, if it’s dropping and dead ones are left lying along the banks to rot.” Or this, describing a paddlewheeler at night: “Here came one along, lit up like a jack-o-lantern, furnace doors open, blowing out sparks, decks gleaming like ropes of jewels even this late, and bows grinning like monstrous white teeth.”

Matecumbe is even a more cohesive novel than Huck, which famously devolves into aimless invention in its latter chapters. All the aspects of Davey and Uncle Jim’s journey are pulled together and resolved, with drama and surprises, after they reach their destination Matecumbe in the Florida Keys. Of course, Twain’s great book is an American classic — Hemingway even once wrote that it’s “the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that” — while Journey to Matecumbe is all but forgotten. It was fairly successful in its day, but it has just eight reviews on Amazon now. You can’t get it for your Kindle at all.

But open Taylor’s book and Davey’s alive all over again, with his skiff-full of unruly characters and his unstaunchable vibrance. “As I look ahead,” he concludes, “I can see all manner of woman troubles coming. But Uncle Jim says I can solve them. ‘Davey, old scamp,’ he says ... ‘You were fifty years old than me the day you were born.’”

He’s ageless now, back on my bookshelf where he'll stay, at least until I can find someone, maybe around 12 years old, who likes to read and might enjoy a good adventure, down an old river in America.

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"I was able to connect even more to the characters" — responses from the first school to work with STREET OF STORYTELLERS

My novel Street of Storytellers has won a third national book award, second top honor for all fiction from the IndieReader Discovery Awards — but it was just as exciting for me this month to help complete the first school study-unit project with the novel. This post shares some responses to the novel by seventh graders and their ELA teachers at Castleton Village School in Castleton, Vermont.

I received and responded to thoughtful letters from the students, and we had a lively Google Meet conversation. I finished with hugely renewed respect for how teachers have somehow helped rich learning happen this spring — and I was uplifted by the connections the seventh graders made with the novel’s American, Pakistani and Afghan characters.

Here are a few quotes from the students’ letters, shared with permission, plus brief reflections on the study unit by teachers Annie Crumb and Karon Chanski:

From the students:
I really loved this book. It was amazing and one of my favorites. I loved how each character changed.

I thought the setting was really cool. I liked how different it was to the United States. I like how every place you go, the culture is different. I find it really interesting.

It was interesting to see how Luke's love of music helped him connect with the local people of Peshawar. Hearing that music was being played nearby was the reason he decided to finally leave his hotel. Have you ever had an experience in your life where you enjoyed one thing and other people enjoyed that same thing, and it helped you connect with them?

Dani is such a believable character and so strong. Even after the head mistress was killed at Dani’s school, Dani did not give up her dream of becoming a teacher.

Was Yusuf meant to be this important in the story? If he had not been a part of Luke’s journey, do you think Luke would have changed his stubborn habits? I have experienced this level of influence in my life, so I was able to connect even more to the characters in this section.

Why did you make it so Luke understands things from other perspectives? I feel like Luke learned to see things from other people's perspective, and by learning that he knows how other people feel even if he feels something different.

From the teachers:
I read Street of Storytellers with a class of seventh grade students. About two thirds of this group are reluctant readers, but my students were drawn into the novel immediately. I found the students really connected to both Luke and Danisha, empathizing with the circumstances that each character is forced to contend with.
      I paired the reading with short cultural investigations into the greater Middle East region, focusing on food, music, and iconic locations within the region that would entice visitors. I used the novel as part of a larger themed unit on perspective. My students analyzed and understood the perspectives of the two professors, Luke, Danisha, and even the troubled Rasheed. They also found many details in descriptions of the setting which helped them understand a time and place very different from their own.
      Street of Storytellers was a new addition to my curriculum this year, but it has earned its place as an anchor text. My students loved it, and I loved the opportunity to widen my students' world view.
Annie Crumb

Middle school students need to make connections in order to learn. Several times, my students asked me if this was a true story because the characters felt like real people. That is the true talent Mr. Wilhelm has. He is able to create such believable characters that the students feel they know them, and then they WANT to know more about the background. Doug Wilhelm makes the connections our kids need to learn.
Karon Chanski

Very sincere thanks to Karon, Annie and the whole Castleton seventh grade!

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Pretty good covid medicine: two national book awards!

The other day I did a Zoom session with a seventh-grade class, and glimpsed what teachers are coping with. All I can say is, summer is coming! Whatever you're coping with, I hope you’re staying well (and sane).

I had covid-19 last month, but I’m steadily recovering, back at work and grateful to still be here. So it was a huge uplift when, on a single day this month, my multicultural YA novel Street of Storytellers — which was rejected by every major publisher, before being picked up by a tiny “indie” house here in Vermont — won national awards from two different competitions.

Here's what happened:

A month after it came out last fall, Street of Storytellers, which has an American teenage narrator and is set in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier during Christmas week 1984, won the YA Fiction Book Award from the Independent Publishers of New England. Then last March, Kirkus Reviews named it an “Indie Editors’ Choice.” The journal’s review, featured in its April print issue, calls Storytellers a "thriller" that’s “an entertaining, thoughtful look at a complicated historical, religious, artistic, and cultural crossroads ... An especially strong, moving, and well-described theme is the power of music to overcome barriers of many kinds.”

GOLD street of storytellers 1Then on May 5, Street of Storytellers was awarded the gold medal for YA fiction from the Independent Press Awards, an international competition. The same day, it won the silver medal for teen fiction from the Benjamin Franklin Awards. Sponsored since 1982 by the Independent Book Publishers Association, the Ben Franklins are the top honors in the indie book world.Ben Franklin silver medal

We’ve been notified that one more award is coming, the most surprising one by far ... but I can’t say anything about that until later this month.

Meanwhile, Street of Storytellers is worth a look! offers for a synopsis, for information on discount bulk purchases, and to see how 11 prominent book bloggers assessed it: “an intense, captivating, riveting, intriguing and significant novel” ... “vividly told, fascinating, and compelling” ... “a beautifully told story about three different families from extremely different worlds discovering how they fit together.”

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Shining a “Brilliant Light” on new books and good writers

Back when the New York publishing world still wanted my books, I wondered if the people there ever got out. Did they talk to people outside their island, beyond their castle walls? They didn’t seem to. Yes, they went to book fairs, where they talked with other book people and reinforced their shared preconceptions. Otherwise they seemed to stay behind those high walls, working and deciding in an insular world.

Now the world has changed. As it did for films and music, the digital revolution has enabled a vast, tumultuous blooming of independently published books. From all over the countryside, floods in the thousands come out each season, unjudged by the gate-keeping of the traditional houses, all of which have been absorbed by giant multinational corporations. So it’s a very different world for everyone — readers, writers, publishers both indie and traditional, and all the librarians and other curators out there.

When you have a good new indie book, the biggest challenge, unsurprisingly, is simply getting seen. You do your very best, you do everything you can, but you’re ignored by the book establishment, the major review journals, the makers of best-of lists; you do not get a look. How can you catch a reader’s eye? After months of trying with Street of Storytellers, my 17th book overall, I felt ready to give it up. Let it go. Even if nobody ever reads it, at least I made the book and it’s good.

Then I got an email from Brilliant Light. This, I learned, is a year-old enterprise run by an energetic small team, with rich experience in writing and publishing, that's devoted to helping readers discover the work of good authors here in New England.

“Our goal is to come up very near the top of the list when searching for New England writers and their books on the Internet,” said Brilliant Light’s unexpected email. I responded by asking the team — writer and artist Jon Meyer, writer, editor and artist Deb Meyer, and publishing-world veteran Scott Lesniewski — to tell me more.

“As it turns out, there are a ton of talented writers and great books out there!” the Brilliant Light team wrote back. “And the amount of effort and care writers put into their craft truly deserves a GIANT billboard (remember those?) on the ‘information super-highway.’”

“For the algorithm-inspired generations of today, we humbly offer a well-researched and maintained selection of New England writers, in various topics, at no charge,” Scott added. For writers, he added, “I think the challenge is still in genuinely connecting to the audience.” That’s for sure.

“Online,” he said, “it is easy to forget there are people (hopefully interested, engaged people) in front of screens and keyboards. An author must begin with something awesome — their excellent work — and then, bring it to their audience in ways that aren't overly pushy or selling... an age-old challenge.” So Brilliant Light spotlights and recommends poets and other writers, features independent bookstores, offers sample pages from new books, and lists upcoming events.

Even with all that, I don’t expect Brilliant Light will work miracles for anyone. It’s still an enormous challenge to get engage readers outside what’s now a very corporate-minded publishing establishment. But discovering that there just is an initiative like this, started and run by very smart people who seem really to be connecting with readers out beyond the towers ... well, this makes it seem worthwhile to keep going. Keep at it.

If we do, who knows? A brilliant light might just shine.

I hope you’ll visit Brilliant Light, at They're well worth a look!

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A library story, slightly damp

The libraries I’ve loved have tended to be not very attractive, appearance-wise. I think of the metal-shelved catacombs that fill the dim-lit, below-ground floors of Baker Library at Dartmouth College, and the chairs of molded plastic that made me feel like I was back home at the American Library in Kathmandu, where I taught English across the street many years ago, and tried to get the writing of my first book started. But the place where I made the deepest connection with what libraries can mean was, probably, the least lovely of all. It was damp and borderline moldy, in fact.
     In Montpelier, Vermont, the Kellogg-Hubbard Library is the capital’s public library, and from the outside it’s a fine, graceful little granite building. But for many years the children’s section was in the basement, where the carpet was nearly always a little moist. But we lived just up Main Street, when my son Brad was a preschooler, and the library was probably the place we loved best.
     They shelved their picture books alphabetically, but only by first initial — so Dr. Seuss was in there somewhere among the S’s. You never knew where. When we’d go down into the kids’ section, Brad at three and then four would hurry to those shelves and efficiently pull out the six or seven titles that just then were his favorites. I never could figure out how he did this.
     First of all, Brad couldn’t yet read. Second, I could never find anything on those shelves! I’d look forever among the P’s for Alice and Martin Provenson’s Shaker Lane, among the M’s for Masako Matsuno’s Taro and the Tofu, among the G’s for Bill Grossman’s great Donna O’Neeshuck Was Chased by Some Cows. Sometimes I couldn’t find them at all — everything within each letter was so jumbled up. But Brad would scan a shelf and unerringly locate each favored title.
     How? Finally, I asked him. “I remember how they look,” he said, and he made a little sliding motion with pinched finger and thumb.
“How they look?” At first I didn’t get it, still, but then I realized: He had memorized the spines. Not the words, but how they looked. That was how much these books meant to a small boy who’d already gone through a divorce, who pored over these stories every evening of each weekend with his dad.
     Then one weekday morning in March when Brad was (I think) five, several huge chunks of ice buckled up and jammed together along the Winooski River, creating an ice dam that suddenly, in about 20 minutes as everyone was heading off for work, flooded nearly all the city’s downtown. Among the most urgently threatened resources was the Kellogg-Hubbard children’s collection. Within minutes, a large collection of volunteers had appeared at the library, gone downstairs and handed all those books up to safety.
     In the years that followed — after Brad and his mom, then I too, had moved to another part of the state — Kellogg-Hubbard mounted a successful fundraising campaign that enabled it to build what’s now a lovely little children’s section, a graceful addition to the back of the building.
     I don’t know if they still lump the picture books together by first initial only. But I have no doubt that there are preschoolers there right now, today, who know just where and how to find the stories they love most. However graceful or not its building may be, relationships like this make every public library among the most beautiful places, if you ask me, in any community that’s smart and lucky enough to have one.

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Libraries in my life: Vienna

In February of my sophomore year at Kenyon College, I decided I couldn’t stand another long, rainy winter stuck under leaden skies in central Ohio. So I found a study-abroad program in Europe — in Vienna, where the heavy, drizzly gray sets in around November and never goes away until April. I didn’t know that, of course, when we left for the year on our discount charter plane full of undergrads. We were going to Europe!
      Anyone who has the chance to study abroad shouldn’t miss it; careers and mortgages set in all too soon. But the notion of roaming free, with a backpack and a Eurailpass ... well, that wasn’t entirely us. We had our chances to travel and we grabbed them, but the main cast of our experience was three seasons, fall winter and spring, within the grand gray eminence of a faded civilization, a massive but still graceful old city that had lost its empire and been shattered by two world wars. We were American kids — we knew next to nothing about this, but here we were, walking wide-eyed along the old streets, by lines of machine-gun bullet holes that ran across the faces of buildings from the street battle the Russians and Germans had fought here in 1945. And then, all too soon, winter set in.
     I found myself in libraries. I had always been drawn to these, and here I searched out two: the library of the British Council, just down the street in the center city from the building where we had our classes, and the American Library, which was farther off somewhere. The British Council had curtains and dark wood paneling, and no one else ever seemed to be there. I sat in a captain’s chair at a polished wood table and read Elliot’s “The Waste Land,” which seemed to be about central Europe in the early 70s, still struggling after its self-made devastation and horror to come back to life. 

I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

The American Library was in a newer section, and it could have been lifted over from a suburban junior high back home. I sat in molded chairs of colored plastic discovering James Thurber and E.B. White, who'd been office-mates on the New Yorker staff and whose work had such a casual grace, such natural lucidity. Reading those guys opened me up to what writing could be — what you might possibly do, if you could ever find the perfect words and make it all seem effortless.
     “The ghost that got into our house on the night of November 17, 1915,” wrote Thurber, “raised such a hullabaloo of misunderstandings that I’m sorry I didn’t just let it keep on walking, and go to bed.” For just that opening sentence, how can you do better than “a hullabaloo of misunderstandings”? You can’t. That’s what I saw.
     A third library was the dim little chamber that our school kept, and what I mainly remember is the fat thesaurus it had. I spent hours in that book, trying to find the naturally perfect words just as White and Thurber had. What I realized eventually, though I’m not sure it happened then, was that somehow you can’t find the essential way to say something in a book. You have to search for it in yourself.
      I don’t know if I figured anything out in Vienna, but my time in the city set me on a path. I would travel and live overseas through a good part of my twenties; and, then and thereafter, I would go on writing the best I could. I’m still searching for the essential words, and for a story to tell in such a natural way that it opens up a clarity inside. For me, Vienna didn’t offer much clarity; it offered echoes, with great and gloomy spaces to walk through and a whole lot to wonder about.
     Eventually, the heavy skies did open up. But I find I don’t remember the spring, which surely was beautiful, so much as I do that long-ago winter, when we wandered the gray streets by the great buildings with the bullet holes, and wondered about civilization, and history, and the meaning of words and our lives. 

What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

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The Last Steamship

In early 1981 I took passage on the last ocean-going, regularly scheduled passenger ship in the world: the RMS Dwarka, running from the Persian Gulf to Karachi and Bombay. I had just left my newspaper job to travel in the Muslim world and write my first book, The Heart of the Bazaar: A Journey Into Islamic Asia. That book was rejected 75 times and never published — but years later it became the basis for my newest book, Street of Storytellers. Here is the conclusion of a chapter from the original Heart of the Bazaar, describing my passage from Dubai to Karachi on the RMS Dwarka, which was the world's last regularly scheduled ocean-going passenger ship.

On the last evening the young officers in the bar were discussing women and rugby when in came the chief engineer. I knew it was him — he was a bulky man with great frontality, and a jowly, veiny, much-marked face, with redly exploded nose. Three stripes on his shoulder boards, a big man and convivial; the young officers greeted him with grins and reserve. He bantered with them a minute or so, then turned and engaged me in conversation.
    His speech was steeped in his Scottishness. He had myriad tiny veins in his cheek, and in his remarkable nose. He asked if I’d read an article about the just-concluded Iranian hostage crisis in the British newsmagazine, The Economist. But — did I know The Economist? I hadn’t read the article but said I sometimes read the magazine.
    Well! The Economist! The engineer was delighted. Leaning over conspiratorially, he said, “There is a shortage, you know, of intellect’l companionship on this vessel.” He inclined his large head subtly at the officers, who were paying no attention. I, looking over his shoulder, nodded.
    “Say,” he said — “why don’t you come up after supper? I’ve got a complete set of recent issues of The Economist. Why don’t you come?” I said I would like to, and he, finishing his beer before supper was called, went off.
    Later when I climbed up to the boat deck I reached the engineer’s door alongside a steward who was hefting a case of beer. “Evening, sir,” he said, smiling.
    “Well! Hello!” said the chief engineer, who sat within a well-traveled-looking room. The steward set the beer down, and left. The engineer sat me down and bid me say what I’d have. A bottle of Drambuie was on the table, and as it was also Scottish and I’d never had it, I said I thought I’d like that. He poured me a large glass of the thick liquid, and opened himself a beer.
    We were there I guess for several hours. Though the world would never again be, to the engineer’s mind, what it had once been, nonetheless he followed its events with passion. He brought out stacks of magazines and pressed them all on me, leafing through this one and then another to show which article I had to read.
    He added two paperbacks, a spy novel and the massive War and Remembrance, which two would keep me going halfway through Pakistan; and he kept an eye on the clock, for the hourly news broadcasts of BBC World News and the Voice of America. Would switch on the scuffed Sony four-band at a quarter past the hour for BBC, half past for VOA, and would stem his torrent of talk at once to listen. If I’d comment on something reported he’d wave me quiet and crane his ear to the news.
    My Drambuie was sickly sweet. I’d empty the glass with some relief; he’d instantly refill it, pushing the bottle toward me with both hands. “Have another, have another, please don’t be shy” — and I would take again the glass, which was sticking to my fingers, now.
    Among those elements of the world which would never be the same again, to the chief engineer’s mind, were machines of all sorts, nautical in particular (he had the greatest respect for the Dwarka’s redoubtable boilers and engine, so much so that the flow of words he poured upon me nearly stopped up when he tried to say how much better hers were than any built today); and modern navies, which he believed relied far too heavily on computers and computer guidance.
    He believed the oil boom had, though not alone, altered the world irreversibly. Of young people in the West he said, “There is a lack of commitment, of appreciation ... isn’t there?” There was no use disagreeing, or qualifying — something you’d begin to say would make him think of something else, and he’d be off again. Once the gates of his thoughts opened, you and he were both stampeded.
    “Now you take the young officers on this boat. To a one of ‘em they’d rather be on a cruise boat. A cruise boat!”
    He had been 32 years at sea. Had sailed on all the “D” class ships, and had sailed the Dwarka up the Shatt al Arab, the southern Iraq waterway that brings from the joined Tigris and Euphrates rivers down to the Gulf. He kept returning to that. He had helped ferry crowds of Armenians out of Iraq when they’d reached the Shatt in flight from one of the country’s murderous regimes; had taken them to Bombay and let them off.
    When a British India freighter captain had died up the Shatt and been buried there in a cemetery for colonial officers, he had gone there to take a photo for the officer’s wife. When he got there, he found the Iraqis had dug out the names on the headstones, which had been inlaid with zinc and gold leaf — so we went for some gold-leaf paint and a small brush. Later he delivered the photo in England to the captain’s wife.
    He began to pour another Drambuie — then looked up at me, staring qualmish at the glass. “I’ve never seen anyone drink so much of this stuff,” he said.
    “Neither have I.”
    “A spot after supper and that’s it — I mean generally speakin’.”
    “It is kind of sweet.”
    He looked at me closely. “Would you like a beer?”
    “I’d love a beer.”
    “Good! A beer.” He poured two and we settled back. I was woozy, he ruminant.
    When the Dwarka berthed in Bombay this time, the engineer would fly home to Scotland. He wondered if this trip might be his last. He told me, looking at the wall, looking at nothing, that he knew this boat, and her engine, better than any other man ever had — or, come to it, ever would. He said the old piloting instruments were something the digital readouts could never, not with sanity, supplant.
    “They’re reliable, that’s why. You know they’ll be there.” He said there would never be another ship like this one.
    “She certainly has lasted past her time,” I said.
    “She’s not past her time! She’s just a good ship.
    “Listen,” he said, sitting up and tipping his beer at me. “In every class of ship that’s built, there’s always a good one and a bad one. Of all the ships in this class, the Dumra, the Dara, the Dwarka and the Daressa, the Dwarka was always the good ship. She was a perfect lady. Always sailed perfectly — we never had any trouble with her.”
    We went outside, to the forward reail. We leaned against it, and looked.
    It was late, and quiet. The deck below was covered in wrapped, sleeping forms. A man among them cocked an eye up, lifted his head to look at us, and glared. The engineer didn’t notice. He was looking out to sea.
    The ship’s engine a low steady hum, she was making good time, cutting easily through the Arabian Sea. Ahead the moon threw its brilliance across the horizon, shining on the thousand wavelets. The light narrowed as it came to us — a path that widened if you could only travel into it, and not have it be always out ahead.
    The engineer, looking, was quiet. Finally he began softly to talk. “This is the last one left in the world,” he said. “There’s nothing like it anywhere.”
    Our prow broke the water as he spoke. We were sailing into the moon.

In 1983, not long after I returned from two years in Southern Asia, I was delighted to see the RMS Dwarka appear in the movie “Gandhi,” playing the part of the British steamship that ferries the young attorney from his first successes as a civil-rights activist in South Africa, home to join the independence movement in India. I wrote to the P&O company in London, asking what had happened to the ship. Someone there replied that not long after the filming, the world’s last ocean-going steamship, on a regular passenger-service route, had been scuttled on the coast of Pakistan.
    “She’s probably razor blades by now,” the gentleman concluded.


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Queen of the Gulf, Part 5

In early 1981 I took passage on the last ocean-going, regularly scheduled passenger ship in the world: the RMS Dwarka, running from the Persian Gulf to Karachi and Bombay. I had just left my newspaper job to travel in the Muslim world and write my first book, The Heart of the Bazaar: A Journey Into Islamic Asia. That book was rejected 75 times and never published — but years later it became the basis for my newest book, Street of Storytellers. Here is the fourth part of a chapter from the original Heart of the Bazaar.

The Gulf is light green — the water is not so deep. The first morning at sea is bright, but misty far off. From the promenade deck I can see supertankers in the mist, crossing the horizon in a long irregular line.
     They are a brush’s bare strokes on a watercolor horizon. Each one is a long, long stretched-out hull, barely visible above the waterline, and a bit of housing at the far back. 
Supertankers move so slowly they seem not to be moving at all. The captain, stopping by, says they travel slower than they could, to save fuel. They can’t come into Gulf ports, they’re too big; the loading stations are miles offshore, the huge storage tanks are underwater. The supertankers diverge out the funnel of the Gulf, take weeks to get where they’re going. I say to the captain, they barely look real. Down inside each of those creatures, the captain says, is a quarter million, maybe half a million tons of oil. They are real.
    Now and then a dhow chugs by, moving crosswise to our lane, tiny even next to us. As the dhow approaches it too looks empty in the center, its wood prow upcurved and its afterdeck raised behind, the middle scooped out. Then looking down into it you see a clutter of cargo and people in the hollow, open to the sun. The dhows are supplying Iran, crossing from Dubai to smaller, older ports with cargo that can no longer pass through the bombed-out big Iranian harbors to the north. The dhows slip under, around the events of separate ages. They are so much older than our steamship. and more resilient. The supertankers are newer and fashioned to a different, out-of-human scale — and they are much more fragile. We are from some outmoded middle time. As the dhow goes by (“plying its undying lane,” I write in my notebook), its diesel leaves an oily track.
    We may see American warships, says the captain, just a little devilish.
    “Here? They’re inside the Gulf?
    His eyes flash. “Damn well shouldn’t be, but they are.” The Americans radio to him, he says, when he passes the Strait of Hormuz. As if he’s been “interfered with.”
    "One day I got a little annoyed. I asked them if they realized these were Omani waters, not international. And I said I had never” — he issues his words slowly now — “been interfered with by anyone, in any way.”
    He starts to go. When we get beyond the Strait, he says, we’ll see the Russians.

I have a cabinmate, a smooth handsome Indian named Alberto, who wears slick shirts but is a nice guy, open-faced and thoughtful. As does much of the ship’s crew, he comes from Goa, the tiny Catholic province on the west coast of India that was colonized by Portugal and has long been accultured to the sea lanes. Lounging on his bunk with his shirt open, hands behind his head and a gold chain on his neck, Alberto tells me he is descended from a Portugese nobleman. Says he speaks English, Hindi, Goanese, Portugese and Arabic, along with, he says, 67 Indian dialects. He supervises installations for a Japanese elevator company in Dubai. Is going home to visit his wife and two children in Goa, in their villa by the ocean.
    Lunch is announced by the playing down the corridors of a small portable xylophone. In the dining hall the Queen’s portrait and the captain preside. The tables are never half full; the long linen tablecloths lie mostly unset. At the captain’s table sit only a middle-aged Indian couple, returning diplomats, and a blue-eyed young British officer, the third officer (the second is, apparently, somewhere else). At our table are only Alberto and me.
    But all those families in cabin class — where are they? They take meals in their cabins,Alberto says. “For privacy.”

I sit here on a deck chair, and midday passes into afternoon. Afternoon settles (tea at four) into evening, and at sunset we come to the Strait of Hormuz. The barren mountainous edge of Oman is crowded black above the water. The orange light of sunset forms a canopy behind, in a fading blue sky. Night comes and the lighted canopy dims, uncolors, but stays a while.
    And I think, leaning over the rail, what a thing this is, to be here — that there is a place, Oman, a cliffed empty coast and barren mountains, and whatever is behind ... a place where I can never go. Never enter. Never, most likely, see again.
    Absolute emptiness on that coast. Then it’s dark, and at the base of the black cliffs two small, close-together lights come on, just above the sea.

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Queen of the Gulf, Part 4

In early 1981 I took passage on the last ocean-going, regularly scheduled passenger ship in the world: the RMS Dwarka, running from the Persian Gulf to Karachi and Bombay. I had just left my newspaper job to travel in the Muslim world and write my first book, The Heart of the Bazaar: A Journey Into Islamic Asia. That book was rejected 75 times and never published — but years later it became the basis for my newest book, Street of Storytellers. Here is the fourth part of a chapter from the original Heart of the Bazaar.

The first evening as supper was finishing, I was sitting alone noticing the napkin rings were numbered when a steward entered the dining saloon and, bending to me, whispered that the captain would like, after coffee, to have me up. (He’d gone up already, from his place at center table.) So later I climbed, first the staircase and then a steep metal stair-ladder in open air to the boat deck up top. The captain’s quarters were fitted in closely behind the bridge. We hadn’t yet left Dubai, which sat off behind the darkened harbor area. I knocked on the captain’s door, hearing communication equipment inside.
      It was a television. A Sony color portable sat on an oak nautical desk with framed photos and mementos. The screen showed a splashy variety show, in English, girls dancing.
     “It’s from Dubai,” the captain said. “There was a program showing on Islam that I thought you might be interested in, but it finished a few minutes ago. Now we have this.” He gave it half a glance. “A drink?”
     He knew I was coming, that I was writing something or other; I thought this as he stood to pour a scotch. I had spoken to, more or less interviewed, an official of P&O in London, a mustached, pinstripe-suited Englishman named Mr. Bickford, about the Dwarka. So the captain was let know. Still he did not ask what I was doing, or ever mention it straight on.
     Yet he was direct of manner. Long-limbed, he looked angular as he handed me the drink and sat down on a couch piled with stacks of newspapers and magazines. He wore his clean white captain’s shirt, four gold stripes on the shoulder boards. He smoked a pipe and his long, ravelly, gray-scattered beard contrasted with the trim of his uniform, even with the jacket off. (Jackets were required at dinner, on gentlemen. I’d had to smooth out my U.S. Air Force surplus cotton tropical, bought at an Army-Navy store on the Lower East Side. I fingered it now, nervous, as we chatted.)
     The captain chuckled at this morning’s uproar as the ship had loaded. Oh yes it was that way always, he said; sometimes it was more so. He told funny stories at table, I’d noticed — seemed to relish, and conversation came easiest when he retold, the quirky comedies of a life spent mostly in and out of Asian harbors.
     Now he was spare with his information. But he said he had come out first in 1948 and spent 14 years mastering this and the Bombay-Africa run. He and his wife had lived then in Bombay, and loved it, then. They’d since brought home to Kent an adopted Indian daughter (Mr. Bickford had told me that; the captain did not mention her). After a decade on other assignments the captain had finally returned to the Dwarka, but he had left his family in Kent.
     The two English masters on the Gulf route had alternated, but the other was ill and home indefinitely. This one was to go back at the end of this trip, for a long-postponed leave. He did not know, he said, what would happen then. No other ship’s master knew this run, or this type of ship.
     Conversation flagged and we looked, as people will, at the TV. The captain, warming, began to discourse about television around the world — about the three different systems of color, American, British-European and French-Soviet, and he appraised each one’s tint with fine discrimination. As he ticked off which remote nation had which kind of color, and which few still had only black and white — and which tiny, impoverished states in the Indian Ocean, in Africa and Asia had television stations of their own, I was astonished. They do, he said, knowledgeably nodding. They almost all have it, now.
     I liked the captain. He had a way of clipping up authority when he had to, or when it suited his story. He could flare and his eyes flash a quicksilver indignation that kept you, despite his geniality, a little unrelaxed. In manner he was straightforward, yet he modulated the air around him. The young officers, I’d noticed, called him the Old Man.
     My scotch was finished, and I knew I’d have to go. I asked about the ship. Mr. Bickford had told me she would go up in two years for a drydock ship’s survey; it was “a bit iffey and buttey right now,” he’d said, whether the corporation would put into the Dwarka what the survey would determine she’d need. The Financial Times had written that the ship would “probably go” — that in a few years “all that will be left of the famous British India line will be a few fond memories of women in purdah and mullahs leading passengers in prayer at sunrise and sunset.”
     The captain had his own memories. “I don’t know whether she’ll make it through,” was all that he said. “If she doesn’t, it’s the end of an era.”
     And that was that. I had overstayed, I could tell, my invitation to watch a television program, and I got up to go. Outside I stood at the high rail and looked off at Dubai, and considered how in the cabin behind me sat the last of the coal-steamer captains, sailing the Eastern waters, tuning his TV.

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Queen of the Gulf: Part 3

In early 1981 I took passage on the last ocean-going, regularly scheduled passenger ship in the world: the RMS Dwarka, running from the Persian Gulf to Karachi and Bombay. I had just left my newspaper job to travel in the Muslim world and write my first book, The Heart of the Bazaar: A Journey Into Islamic Asia. That book was rejected 75 times and never published — but years later it became the basis for my newest book, Street of Storytellers. Here is the second part of a chapter from the original Heart of the Bazaar.

To the dessert forks and coffee spoons, each piece in the Dwarka’s silver was engraved with the letters “BI,” for British India Steam Navigation Company, Ltd. B.I., as itself, no longer exists — it is part of a corporation now — but in its day it had as much to do with the making and shifting of eras in the world as has any similar enterprise, early or late, any carrier of human beings.

B.I. was the principal operator of steamships to colonial stations around the Eastern seas. The company was based in India, founded there in 1862 by a Scottish Calcutta merchant, William Mackinnon. By its heyday in the 1920s and 30s, British India steamers were running from Madras to Singapore, Bombay to the Kenya Colony (which Mackinnon had also founded) and South Africa, and Bombay to Basra at the base of Mesopotamia in the Gulf. They reached also Aden, Tanganyika, Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam, Colombo, Calcutta, Jakarta, north Queensland, Brisbane, Japane and, by cargo carrier, Fiji. By the time after the Second World War that all the company’s long-range passenger services, except this one, had ended, B.I. had done much to transform the physical and human landscape of the destinations it served.

It was, after all, the transport of people more than goods that dug in the British Empire. Especially in Africa, India and Southeast Asia, where colonization made its most thorough impression, what went on was not simply the buying cheap of raw material — say, cotton — from a colony and selling back at profit the made-in-England product, the shirt, to the colonized. It was when moving people became the heart of the enterprise that imperialism, for the British, really began to pay off.

Slavery was abolished in the British realm in 1833. Three years earlier, England had abandoned the mercantile system of restricted trade between herself and her colonies, and opened up a worldwide experiment in free exchange. Most of Britain’s Oriental and African adventures were begun and developed by private companies, usually controlled by Scots: the East India Company, Mackinnon’s Imperial East African, the North Borneo. Generally those businesses did not start rich. They took abroad a Scotsman’s stringent approach to finances, and they could count on no sizeable support from home until they began turning profits. The areas they entered tended to be either rich in land and resources and scarce of people to work them — as were much of the Malay Archipelago, and sub-Saharan Africa — or dense with people who had not enough good land, as was so, most of all, in British India, including what is now Pakistan.

With the new open market came a bloom of endeavoring, in regions until then unattractive for the huge amount of work they needed to begin producing profit. The major resource the companies could pour into each raw situation was the human being — the Briton, eager to venture from his home, and the Indian, eager for his own reasons to leave his. The word “coolie” comes from the Hindu, for unskilled laborer. Indians were first shipped abroad the year after slavery ended, in 1834. They went under indentured servitude, giving over five to seven years to their employers in return for passage over and, if they took it, passage back.

A very large migration came. For the Briton the first experience of it was the famous P&O Line, Peninsular and Oriental, which conducted the fresh sahib’s passage from Europe via Port Said to Bombay. There P&O gave over to B.I., whose coal-powered ships steamed about the eastern empire, carrying Britons cabin class and coolies on deck to possessions and protectorates in Africa, the Indian Ocean, Malaya, Indonesia, Singapore.

Today the world is changed. Rarely do many English remain in the places they turned into economic extensions of the West and ruled until after World War II. In many of those places, large colonies of Indians do remain. Tightly clannish, many of them now proprietors of local or broadspread commercial empires, Indians are big parts of the population in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, in Fiji and Sri Lanka and around the Indian Ocean, in East and South Africa — and in Britain itself. They are, by and large, islanded where they are.

Change too has supplanted the old steamships. In all the world, when I boarded the Dwarka, she was the only one left.

She survives because the particular conditions of the Gulf have preserved the patterns of labor migration that were so important in the British Indian ocean empire ... The growth of [the Gulf’s] principal towns and city states have been entirely dependent upon labor migrants from India and Pakistan ...

So it is as the principal carrier of modern labor migrants, the survival of an essentially 19th century trade, that the Dwarka has become the last passenger vessel of British registry employed on a scheduled route around the year. The Dwarka is the survivor of a magnificent tradition, and when she goes, as is likely within the next few years, an era will end in British shipping history.

That was written in 1978 by John Mackenzie, creator of a BBC documentary on the Dwarka. By early 1981, when I boarded the ship, her trailing distinction had grown. Year-round passenger service by ocean liner across the Atlantic was discontinued in 1969, done in by air travel; the last long-range service in Pacific waters ended in 1978. The Dwarka was the last regularly scheduled, ocean-going passenger ship — the last on full route, neither an Islamic pilgrimage vessel nor a ferry or cruise boat — anywhere in the world.

Launched in 1947, she stayed on the Gulf run because, unlike the airlines, she could carry just about unlimited amounts of personal cargo. Into her hold went refrigerators, washing machines, televisions and more, brought home to India and Pakistan by workers at the end of two- to five-year contracts up and down the Arabian coast.

She survived, in other words, because of the space inside her.  

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Queen of the Gulf: Part 2

In early 1981 I took passage on the last ocean-going, regularly scheduled passenger ship in the world: the RMS Dwarka, running from the Persian Gulf to Karachi and Bombay. I had just left my newspaper job to travel in the Muslim world and write my first book, The Heart of the Bazaar: A Journey Into Islamic Asia. That book was rejected 75 times and never published — but years later it became the basis for my newest book, Street of Storytellers. Here is the second part of a chapter from the original Heart of the Bazaar.

I step into a quiet passageway, and an Indian steward in a white jacket appears, leads me to my cabin. It has wood shutters and a fan on the wall, a sink, dressing table, desk, two wardrobe closets and three bunks, two over-under. No one else is in here. I sit on a bunk. The clamor is distant now. The harbor ruffles outside.

In a while, my baggage stowed, I am in the passageway and the steward reappears. Serenely he shows me around. At ends of the halls, through glassed and curtained doors and paneled in oak, are the dining saloon, the library, the bar. Curtains are drawn, shutters closed against the sun. It is cool in here.

The steward leaves me in the library, among two felted bridge tables, two deep couches and two enormous old standing air conditioners, louvred and varnished boxes on the floor. Some books are inside a couple of small cases on writing tables. Inside are rows of dark-bound volumes, the titles running to mysteries (A Three-Pipe Problem), adventures and romances (The Ninety-Second Tiger), popular histories (With Smuts in the Boer War), and oddments (The Wandering Osprey, Portrait of the Pennines). Wondering what I’m going to read, I settle into a desk chair.

Shortly the door opens and the steward reappears. “Luncheon, sir,” he says. We go down a mahogany-trimmed staircase, through swinging doors into the dining saloon.

On this busy day lunch proceeds with quiet efficiency. Three long tables are covered in white linen. At one sit some customs officers, guests of the ship. At the central table are three Arabs in white, a dignified Indian couple and two British officers, caps removed. Behind them on the paneled wall a portrait of the Queen presides.

I am seated at the end of the empty table. A silver clip holds my menu, the setting is silver, the servers dish three courses from covered silver trays. Barely can one settle an empty water glass before one’s server is refilling it, from a silver pitcher; the silver buttons on his tunic are embossed with the Crown. Conversation is a murmur among soft clinking sounds.

After custard pie and coffee I wander back outside, where the shouting and activity boil unabated. The deck passengers still throng the rails, for and aft — they wave and dispute and clamor, as does the crowd on the quay, while nets and hooks steadily fill the holds that evidently are bottomless.

On the decks below, around the open holds, townships have appeared. Men and women have spread bedding and cloth and set up stations for cooking, and have made suitcases into barriers of bright-checked canvas and colored molded vinyl. 

Surrounding the encamped families are the cassette players and the electric fans, the attache cases, coolers, televisions, foam beds and insulated plastic water jugs that they are bringing home, fruits of their salaries here in Dubai. Women are cooking already, on small kerosene stoves. Men socialize, recline, play cards. Some people are sleeping. Others wander the decks, hands behind their baakcs. Two men pray, lifting and lowering on small ornamented carpets, under a lifeboat. 

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Queen of the Gulf: Part 1

In early 1981 I took passage on the last ocean-going, regularly scheduled passenger ship in the world: the RMS Dwarka, running from the Persian Gulf to Karachi and Bombay. I had just left my newspaper job to travel in the Muslim world and write my first book, The Heart of the Bazaar: A Journey Into Islamic Asia. That book was rejected 75 times and never published — but years later it became the basis for my newest book, Street of Storytellers. Here is the first part of a chapter from the original Heart of the Bazaar.

The last Dubai morning is washed in sun. A taxi takes me from my hotel neighborhood, looking back as I leave it, down into Port Rashid through a gate in a very long, high wire fence. I see no water, only asphalt expanse. Cranes and cargo derricks stand at leisure, far down the sky. Somewhere in this the taxi lands me at the passenger terminal, which is a tiny white cube on the asphalt. This is not, it seems, a people-oriented port.
    The terminal inside is a bare room, bare-floored. Some officials stand unstirring in the boarding-control area at the front, and from their feet a long line of men in plain cotton squats across the floor. These are workingmen, taking passage home, and they are sociable: some play cards and several hold cassette players, the big, silvery, twin-speaker kind.
    A large mound of baggage is also on the floor, and two people are sitting on the mound. A clutch of middle-class families, Indian or Pakistani, is drawn with children against one wall; a solitary gowned Arab perches on a side bench. A couple of refrigerators and two sizeable wooden crates are stood up by the cargo door.
    I stand a minute, then decide to join the line. Awkwardly I squat. A young Pakistani in front of me turned, puts out his hand. “Friend,” he says. I say “sure,” and shake it. The young man’s companions all turn, look at me, chatter and laugh. Then they turn back.
    As we sit ignored by the officials in front, the collection of cargo at the rear begins to multiply. Porters in colored pajamas truck in another refrigerator, a color TV, enormous suitcases bound in colored rope and great rolled bundles of bedding, likewise tied. Appliance crates and stereo boxes; more metal cases. Around the cargo door now is all the action — people giving orders, more porters scurrying, disputes at high syllabic speed. All the clatter rises with the pile, and the pile builds to monumental size.
    An official-looking Indian bustles past our line, holding a bunch of tags. He sees me and stops.
    “Cabin class?”
    “Yes, ‘B’ cabin,” I say, and hold up my ticket; but he doesn’t look at it, he waves me up the line. “You must go to the front. This line is not for cabin class. Don’t you see it?”
    “Oh. Well.” I get up, unbend my legs, haul up my stuff. On the floor the men all grin.
    The tag-strings hang in a tangle from this man’s hand. “Where are you going,” he says.
    “You will visit Pakistan.”
    He stands a minute. Then, “Don’t worry,” he says.
    “Oh — I’m not.” (I am.)
    “You will like Pakistan.”
    “Yes, I think I will.”
    “People are very nice there,” he says. “They will respect you.” Then he goes off, trailing his tags.

At the window up front I watch while Arab soldiers in khaki thumb through my passport, lean over it, pass it around. It disappears into an inner room, where more soldiers are. When it reappears finally and is handed back I’m waved to the dockside door. On the way stands a young British ship’s officer, in white with blue shoulderboards and officer’s cap. He keeps an eye on the squatting line.
    The men are deck passengers, I can see now: they are at this moment considered to be cooperative. I ask the officer if they’re Pathans, the people of the Northwest Frontier. He seems surprised.
    “Pathans, yes — and all kinds,” he says. “Every type imaginable.” I don’t think he knows. I go out and get on the bus, for the boat.
    We step off the dock and there, drawn up and swarmed over, is the last of the steamships.
    Her white hull is low to the water and she has simple, graceful lines. Her broad and squarish middle decks are white, the whole ship is white and immaculately trimmed, one clean funnel on top. The ship is compact, almost short, but broad or beamish, and in the midst of this clamor of loading and boarding she has a steady air. Around her are freighters, all far larger, but the steamship holds your eye. A blue banner down her gangway at midships reads, “RMS Dwarka — Queen of the Gulf.”
    That gangway is thick with moving people, and all down the deck rails people lean out, shout and wave their arms as a crane on deck lifts a load of appliances in crates from the mountains on the dock — swings the load up in its net, over the rails and down in the hold, as the crowd exuberantly offers directions. Ship’s officers in white more quietly direct, they stand holding radios amid the milling throng on the quay.
    That crowd ebbs and flutters around the great piles of crates and sacks and baggage. Porters haul up more, on carts and backs and hand trucks, as Indian shipyard officials move about holding clipboards. Young smoothies in open shiny shirts and pointed shoes shift attitudes, and Arab soldiers in berets and razor-pressed kkakis stand about and do nothing at all. Off to the side are the regal Arab businessmen, aloof and watching, gold Cross pens in their pockets.
    I join the crowd moving up the gangway, squeezing in behind a small boy who struggles, step to step, with a very large plastic water jug. At the top a tall young British officer with cool blue eyes stands unruffled as people shove and clamor past. Lifting his walkie-talkie, he radios down to hold the people a minute. He grins at me, his blue eyes unharried.
    “Like Picadilly Circus on a Saturday afternoon, this is,” he says, and he gazes down again, at another morning in an Arabian port.  

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The library with a stuffed tiger

The most unusual public library I ever had a passionate relationship with was inside a white-painted palace in Kathmandu. When you came into it, you were greeted by a stuffed tiger and two standing suits of armor. Past these you saw antique volumes in hand-crafted cabinets that filled an expansive room, with a ceremonial staircase rising in the center and oil-painted portraits along the upper walls of aristocrats from another age. It was here that I discovered the magnetism of fantasy — and not just because of how the Kaiser Library looked. It was because of what was in its books.

In the early 1980s I was in the midst of two years on the Indian Subcontinent, most of which I spent teaching English and writing tourist-magazine articles in Nepal’s capital city while I tried write my first book — a nonfiction account of my travels in Muslim Asia that would, many years later, become the background for my newest novel, Street of Storytellers.

I had left my American newspaper job months earlier to travel on the Persian Gulf and in Pakistan, trying to earn a better understanding of the Muslim world. Coming off that time on the road I had found work in Kathmandu, and it was in the throes of trying to get my book-writing off the ground — I went through reams and reams of typing paper on my portable Olivetti, and threw nearly all of it away — that someone told me about the library.

It had been the personal palace library of Field Marshal Kaiser Rana, scion of a ruthless dynasty that dominated this Himalayan nation from 1846 to 1951. The Ranas kept Nepal isolated, reserving wealth and education almost solely for themselves and building a collection of Asian-colonial-style mansions in the city. This one held Kaiser Rana’s personal library. His widow donated it to the nation in 1969, and the general’s personal retreat became of the world’s most unique public libraries, with over 50,000 books, documents and works of art.

I started spending afternoons in the Kaiser Library. You could say I got lost in it, but I’m not sure I was. I was exploring a trove of treasures. Once I had pored through its English volumes, pulled from those polished-wood shelves, about Muslim sections of the old British Empire, I pushed into a back corridor lined with metal cabinets — and in those I found Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God.

I was already a Campbell reader — his The Hero with a Thousand Faces had informed and shaped my journey, as it has for so many others — but this was new. I spent weeks working through Campbell’s four volumes about mythology, Primitive, Oriental, Occidental and Creative, filling notebooks and writing down passages. I’ve never been much of a fantasy reader, or writer, but in those books I think I found something of what young readers so often discover in today’s fantasy series: exciting stories that are timeless, and that bring us a sense that the struggles of life really do have meaning.

The Kaiser Library is still there; the book I began in Kathmandu was rejected 75 times and never published, but I kept on writing, and the Kaiser Library has stayed with me through these years. The memory of my afternoons there, deep in among those books and paintings — there was a stuffed mongoose, too, coiled atop a bookshelf, as if to strike a cobra — feels, to me, as valuable as a personal legacy. I suppose, in a way, that’s what it is.

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Cross-Cultural YA Fiction: 10 Good Books

Last spring and summer I asked teachers, school librarians and bookstore people to suggest middle-school and YA novels that place an American main character in another culture or country. This is a strong way to connect American young readers with diverse cultures — plus, I’ve always liked reading novels like this.

From all the recommendations that came in, I selected and read 10 novels, blogging about each one. Here’s the list, ranked from my most favorite on down — with summaries of what I thought.

1. Endangered (Congo), Eliot Schrefer. No realism is spared in this gripping story of an American girl at a bonobo sanctuary that’s brutally overrun in a spasm of civil war. A
powerful narrative, vividly written, with mind-opening honesty about what two species of primates — bonobo and human — are capable of.

2. Nowhere Boy (Belgium), Katherine Marsh. A privileged American and a desperate young Syrian refugee meet in a most unexpected way — and the American’s life finds a purpose. This is a rare achievement: a novel with moral intent that’s also a strong and honest story.

3. Laugh With the Moon (Malawi), Shana Burg. A girl closed to her own grief opens up to the village world where she has to be for a summer. I loved this book.

4. Darius the Great Is Not Okay (Iran), Adib Korram. Awkward, unconfident Darius travels with his family from their U.S. home to Yazd, his mother’s hometown. This is not a novel of dramatic events — but as Darius gradually makes personal connections in Yazd, the story grows deeper and more meaningful on the inside.

5. Habibi (Israel), Naomi Shihab Nye. This is a 1997 novel whose narrator, like the author, has a Palestinian dad and an American mom — and one day her family relocates from the U.S. to a tense, polarized, injustice-ridden Jerusalem. At first focused on conveying the Palestinian side of heavy-handed Israeli rule, the novel opens up into something broader and deeper, yet still challenging.

6. Listen, Slowly (Vietnam), Thanhha Lai. The cultural immersion here is richly detailed and engaging. The story itself, about an American-born Vietnamese girl enlisted in the search for a grandfather lost in the war, isn’t quite as strong, but it's a rewarding read even so.

7. Escape Under the Forever Sky (Ethiopia), Eve Yohalem. An American ambassador’s daughter is kidnapped — then escapes. In this thrilling adventure deep into a totally different world, the human spirit pushes through stark dangers and striking cultural differences.

8. Small Damages (Spain), Beth Kephart. A pregnant high schooler is shipped secretly, and reluctantly, to rural Spain to have and then give up her baby. The storytelling can be confusing, but it makes us think and feel. I’d love for all boys to read this.

9. Elephant Run (Burma), Roland Smith. I wanted to like this WWII yarn, about a colonial planter’s son caught by the Japanese invasion in a community of elephant drivers, more than I actually did. An inventive plot, but flat storytelling and characters.

10. Wanderlove (Central America), Kristin Hubbard. A celebration of backpacking travel in which local culture is entirely background, and the self-absorbed main character never meets anyone local who isn’t selling or serving her.

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Kidnapping, Escape and African Wildlife: An Ethiopian Adventure

This is the tenth and last in a series of posts about novels for young readers that transport American characters into other cultures and countries. For suggesting Escape Under the Forever Sky, thanks to Sharon M. Lawler, MA, MSLS of San Antonio, Texas. And a very sincere thanks to everyone who suggested titles or responded to these posts! I’ve had a fine time doing this.

Escape Under the Forever Sky is a sweet novel, a suspenseful story that’s well-researched and engagingly informative. I didn’t know, for example, that, as author Eve Yohalem writes, “half a million Ethiopian kids die every year from disease and bad nutrition.” Or that “lions don’t want to get into fights with other lions; they roar so other lions will avoid them.” Or that there really was a 12-year-old girl, kidnapped from her village in southern Ethiopia in 2005, who was saved when three wild lions surrounded her and chased her captors away.

Yohalem based her novel on that incident. She invented a 13-year old main character and narrator, Lucy, who is the daughter of the American ambassador in Addis Ababa and is snatched away from an illicit outing with an Ethiopian friend.

Lucy’s a pretty regular teen when we meet her, chafing under her mother the ambassador’s rigid — and, it turns out, quite necessary — protections. She dreams of a freer life (and a village boy in her school), but at the same time she swallows up everything she can learn about African wildlife. In the end, her yearning to be liberated, her knowledge of wild animals and her crush all play a part in her survival. As do some lions. But mainly it’s her amazing resourcefulness, which becomes totally believable, that an ordinary kid could find that inside herself.

When my book The Revealers was being used by a lot of schools, I had the privilege of visiting dozens of middle schools all over the U.S. and talking, sometimes in depth, with hundreds of young adolescents. What I learned, most of all, is that so many of our country’s young people — from every background — are smart, curious, full of dreams and aware of the world. Whether that is more or less so in this age of smartphone absorption I do not know. But the human spirit comes through; you see it, and you draw hope from it.

This is the best thing about Escape Under the Forever Sky. It’s not that this is a great novel; it’s a very good adventure, vividly told, and it absorbs us into a totally different world. And in the process, Yohalem’s narrative lets the resilience, determination and incredible — and generally untapped — capacities of the human spirit come through and envelop us. That’s why this is so worth a read.

Oh ... and you learn about lions. And about colobus monkeys, Swayne’s hartebeest and gelada baboons. And that hyenas, which have the strongest jaws in the animal kingdom, secrete something called “hyena butter” from their butts to mark their territories.

I did not know that.

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In a jungle village, a Boston girl finds her heart — and touches ours

This is the ninth in a series of posts about novels for young readers that transport American characters into other cultures and countries. For suggesting Laugh with the Moon, thanks to Katy Manck, MLS, a “librarian-at-large” in Gilmer, Texas who is president of the International Association of School Librarianship. Katy writes about YA books, “beyond the bestsellers,” at

Some novels are just winning. They first win your attention, then your interest and connection — and finally, if they’re really good, they win your love. That’s how it was, for me, to read Laugh with the Moon.
           Author Shana Burg draws on years-ago experience with rural education in Malawi, a tiny landlocked nation in southeast Africa, to take us there — very grudgingly, at first — with 13-year-old Clare. She’s a doctor’s daughter whose mom passed away about a year ago. Her dad brings her with him for two months in a jungly rural district deep in Malawi, where he’ll work for an international medical charity and she will attend a local school.
          From the first moments after the Air Malawai plane lands and its door opens, as “tiny beads of sweat bubble up all over my skin” and all Clare sees through her window is “forest-green, olive-green, green-gold. And rain, rain, rain,” we are immersed with her in this world that’s so different from her home life in Boston. Deep in a grief she doesn’t know what to do with, Clare is giving her dad the silent treatment. “I doubt I’ll ever smile again,” she thinks.
          She’s wrong, of course; but it takes the whole story for her to find the laughter the book’s title promises. In Mzanga Village Primary, where she’s the only white student in school and is welcomed with this culture’s generous warmth, Clare knows right away she’ll be friends with Memory, a girl her age who has lost both parents. She gets to know other classmates, too — the troublesome Agnes, the handsome Saidi and Handlebar, a boy whose mother rode on a bicycle’s handlebars to reach a hospital and have her baby. When a weekend day trip lurches suddenly toward tragedy, Clare has to confront heartbreak all over again ... and, with the deep connections she has found here, at last she is able to open. To her grief, to sadness ... to everything.
          This is an engaging read and a beautiful story. It’s funny and inspiring to witness, with Clare, the ways the village kids and those who try their best to teach them cope with privations and challenges far beyond those that face even the most resource-poor American school. Burg’s characters rise easily from her pages to life. And in the end, her novel pries open our hearts, even just a little, right along with Clare's.

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