Monday, November 2, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Desert Queen by Janet Wallach

I’ve just (finally) finished Desert Queen. The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Advisor to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia by Janet Wallach. The title pretty much says it all, and is good preparation for the biography. This is our history/historical fiction book group’s next book, and it should generate some lively discussion.

Gertrude Bell was an amazing person. Brilliant, well-traveled, fluent in multiple languages, and extraordinarily self-confident, she blazed trails where few Europeans and no Victorian-era women had ever been. Fascinated by the Middle East, she began her career as an archaeologist, visiting, mapping and writing about several important ancient sites. She ventured out among the Arabs, meeting and befriending them. Her physical stamina and mental capabilities were truly astounding.

At the outbreak of WWI, Great Britain needed information about the Middle East. She had already broken so much ground that, despite being female, she was drawn into Britain’s Intelligence Service and served, throughout the war, as a collector of vital information. She advised the men in charge, whether they wanted her opinions or not. After the war, she continued on in a semi-official to official capacity and was instrumental in drawing the boundaries for nascent nations. She pretty much hand-chose Iraq’s first king.

This is all important history and helps the reader to understand why things are such a mess today. It was hardly a stable area even before the English and French meddled in their affairs, but such a messy bit of meddling--necessary, of course, in order to ensure access to Middle Eastern Oil--was unlikely to have a nice, clean outcome.

Wallach packs a lot into this book. At times, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees as the big picture is obscured by somewhat repetitive detail. It’s almost a day-by-day account of the "notables" Bell took coffee with and dazzled with her intelligence. Numerous excerpts from her letters home are interspersed. She dotes on her father and seems desperate to impress him with her success in establishing herself as a "Person." Wallace also plays up, in sometimes jarringly melodramatic prose, the details of Bell’s unhappy love life.

In the end, despite Bell’s impressiveness and the importance of the history, it was a slow read. Hailed as the definitive biography of Gertrude Bell, this book is worth the effort for those who want a full account. If you just want to familiarize yourself with this important historical figure, the afterword summarizes the highlights in about 4 ½ pages.

And I’ve now concluded the nonfiction challenge!

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