Shop Indie Bookstores
Caravans, James A Michener, Random House Inc, 1963, 431 pp
This is the first book I read for my 1963 reading list. It was #4 on the bestseller list for that year. At under 500 pages it is short for a Michener book.
The location is Afghanistan. The year is 1946. I would bet that the country was not much in the news in the year after WWII ended though it was a time of anxiety about the USSR and the spread of communism. In the story however, the anxiety at the US Embassy in Kabul is over an American young woman who had married an Afghan man she met in college and returned with him to his country.
When the story opens, Ellen Jasper's parents back in Pennsylvania have not heard from their daughter in some time and have contacted their senator, asking him to put pressure on the Embassy to investigate her whereabouts and well being.
Mark Miller, descendant of Jewish immigrants to the US from Germany in the mid 19th century, is now posted in Kabul as a junior grade State Dept officer. Since he speaks the language the assignment goes to him to find Ellen. Why mention that he is Jewish? It plays into the story in an interesting way.
The novel is a wonderful introduction to this country in the days when "Kabul today shows what Palestine was like at the time of Jesus" as they were wont to say at the Embassy. In fact, the Mullahs rule the society and Miller is a witness to two incidents of stoning; one of a female adulterer and one of a male homosexual. But there are also young men who wish to bring the country into modern times, both as a society and technologically. Ellen's husband is one of those men.
As Miller sets out in pursuit of the missing woman, Michener takes the reader on a journey through the mountains and deserts of that forbidding land. According to his Author's Note, he himself spent time traveling in Afghanistan before writing the book. Plenty of adventure ensues, during which he draws a complete introduction to the lives, issues, and customs of the times. Of course, there is also romance and some pretty racy scenes for a Michener book
I was somewhat amused by Michener's treatment of the Ellen Jasper character. Miller does find her. She is fearless, wild, and in complete disagreement with wars and progress and the American imperialist agenda. She goes through men as if it were the free love era of the 1960s. Michener was no fan of hippies, protesters, or any anti-American sentiments. Indeed he was a complete patriot. So he approaches this character with a combination of psychological interpretation and condescension. However, Mark Miller falls for her and hard.
I could see how the book became a bestseller in 1963!
(Caravans is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)