A House in the Sky is the true story of a young Canadian woman who progressed from the childhood escape of National Geographic magazines to an intrepid backpacker through S. America, SE Asia, Africa and the Middle East where she started a career as a freelance photojournalist only to find herself a kidnap victim in the 2008 Mogadishu religious jihad (struggle) against the Christian Ugandan and Ethiopian invaders. Over the next 460 days the house in the sky became her main escape from the reality of her situation: sordid living conditions, scarcely enough food, and teenaged guards who, over time, became cruel and abusive toward her.
Amanda Lindhout had grown up in Red Deer, Alberta. After her parents split up, life was tense and precarious for her and her two brothers. With her older brother Mark, she would go through dumpsters to retrieve empty bottles to return for cash; she used her share to buy 2nd hand National Geographic magazines. She often used these to insulate herself from the often violent home situation between her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, a much younger native man with a drinking problem. When old enough, Amanda went to Calgary with a boyfriend where she began to plan trips to the exotic locations she had seen in her magazines. Several months waitressing at a high end nightclub enabled her to take her first trip and it quickly was addictive. It became a pattern: Calgary for several months of waitress work, then off backpacking for as long as her money would last. First S. America with her boyfriend. After they split, Central America with a fellow waitress. Eventually, she became confident enough to travel alone, sometimes meeting up with other backpackers, picking up some of the language, and learning to make herself understood. As a backpacker, she was generally able to avoid areas of conflict; once she embarked on a career as a novice photojournalist, she had to go where the action was.
This story is one of survival, of learning the extremes the body and mind can endure, finding a strength within, and eventually finding a path to help the many other women around the world who face oppression and abuse and, most particularly, those in Somalia and Kenya. The Prologue sets the reader right into the thick of the kidnapping: a retelling of the succession of buildings in which Amanda and her friend, freelance photographer Nigel Brennan, were held prisoner, a description of and the nicknames given to the teenage Muslim warriors that held them, the wealthy, well-spoken overseers of the “Project”, and how she and Nigel became Muslim, learned the prayers, and assimilated in an effort to gain respect and better treatment from their captors.
Beautifully written with wonderful descriptions of both the physical and the mental, you are taken not only through the tremendous ordeal suffered for 15 months at the hands of their tormentors but also to widely divergent landscapes and cultures. I’m not sure how the many people involved in this book decided not to include any photos. Certainly, Amanda deleted all her Mogidishu photos from her camera but, except for the ones taken the morning of the kidnapping, they would have been on her laptop and photos of her travel, especially in the war-torn areas might have added another dimension to her story and possibly broken a bit of the intensity contained in much of this story.
Amanda worked with journalist Sara Corbett to write her book and I find this a bit confusing. The writing is incredible but how much of that is Amanda? I contacted her publisher and asked if Amanda could answer the question about why she chose to have a co-author and about the process of developing the book as well as a few other questions I thought it would be interesting to hear her thoughts on. Unfortunately, I was told that due to an extremely busy schedule she wouldn’t be able to respond to my email. So instead, I went to YouTube to find videos of Amanda talking about her experience and her book. She did an interesting interview on Studio Q with Jian Ghomeshi but little of that was about the process of writing the book. It took about three and a half years of collaboration and I’m sure it was a cathartic experience in many ways but that’s just my guess. There is also a video of Nigel Brennan talking about his experiences and it includes a slideshow of the photos he had taken in the first 3 days in Mogadishu before they were kidnapped.
I love the trade paperback cover design by Jennifer Heuer. It’s very Escheresque; it looks like geometric designs that turn into birds taking flight in the same manner that Amanda let her mind escape into a house in the sky in order to keep her mind in a safe place no matter what was happening to her in her physical surroundings. * * * * *
Amanda did survive and has founded the Global Enrichment Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports development, aid, and education initiatives in Somalia and Kenya. Amanda still lives in Alberta, Canada.
Here is an excerpt from this amazingly compelling and personal story:
Shit. Panic was rising in me. We were moving off the grid. We barreled over scrubby, russet-colored hills, shoulders knocking, heads flailing, as we dodged thorn trees and ran right over bushes, not following any sort of path. With every passing minute, I knew, we were rushing farther away from anywhere someone would think to look for us. Beneath my abaya, I was sweating heavily. I could feel my jeans pasted to my legs. (p.129)