Sunday, October 02, 2005

Journalist brings Sudanese conflict to life


Last update: October 02, 2005

It's been in bookstores for a few months now, but Philip Caputo's "Acts of Faith" is a ripped-from-the-headlines novel that could've been released anytime in the last 10 years and still seem evocative and relevant.

A grandiose adventure, "Acts of Faith" follows the lives of several people, Americans and foreigners, who get entangled in Sudan's civil war in the not-too-distant past. Although there's a truce in the large African nation now, the peace is fragile and the U.N. has investigated claims of genocide in the western Darfur region.

The civil war is a violent, unforgiving backdrop on which Caputo paints a resplendent portrait of foreigners trying to do good while trying to deal with their own personal struggles. "Acts of Faith" is a geopolitical soap opera but with deeper and darker themes. Can good be done in such a fractured country? Can altruism be successfully intertwined with business? Can love flourish between people of different races and vastly different ages?

Caputo's plot basically revolves around the lives of four characters, three Americans and one Kenyan. Douglas Braithwaite is a gung-ho, young American pilot who heads an independent air service that makes dangerous relief flights into the heart of Sudan; Wesley Dare is Braithwaite's partner and a veteran pilot and mercenary; and Quinette Hardin is a Christian missionary who is hired by a human rights group to help redeem black slaves captured by Arab raiders. Fitzhugh Martin is a mixed-race Kenyan who joins Braithwaite's team and finds himself immersed in something much bigger, and sinister, than he realized.

Caputo is no stranger to Africa. He has written a few books about the continent, most notably "Horn of Africa" and "Ghosts of Tsavo." The latter was a real-life story about tracking the legendary lions of the Tsavo region. Caputo is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning work for the Chicago Tribune and his acclaimed memoir about the Vietnam War, "A Rumor of War."

Caputo really spreads his wings in "Acts of Faith," putting his experience and knowledge of Africa to full use. With the modern storylines and fully realized characters, the novel packs a punch and wraps up quite nicely. But "Acts of Faith" is not for the meek or faint of heart. It's complex and not easy to get a grip on. It drifts aimlessly in spots. Caputo fans will be satisfied, but readers with less patience and ambition may be too intimidated.

Caputo does a marvelous job of weaving big themes together (love, altruism, business, faith, hope) into an exciting narrative. But Sudan is still a difficult place to understand.

"This entire century has made friends with the absurd, and none are better friends with it than the Sudanese," says a German doctor in a Sudanese field hospital. "A war whose beginning no one can remember, whose end no one can see, whose purpose no one knows."

© 2005 News-Journal Corporation. ®

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