Exiled: Memoirs of a Camel, by Kathleen Karr, 240 pp RL 4
Like Pam Munoz Ryan's excellent book, Riding Freedom, Kathleen Karr's Exiled tells the story of a little known historical figure from a fascinating period of expansion and war in American history, the 1800s, and specifically highlights historical figures and events who settled California in its infancy. When I began reading the book, which is narrated by a virtuous camel named Ali, I knew from the jacket flap that camels really were brought from Egypt in 1856 and 1857 to form the United States Camel Corp. However, it wasn't until the end of the book when I read the Author's Note that I learned just how much of this unique and fascinating book was based on real people and events.
Karr raises Exiled a notch above your typical historical novel by bestowing her animal narrator with the ability to understand human speech. This in turn makes the anthropomorphic qualities of the camels, such as the belief in Allah and the practice of His teachings, a minor thread in the plot, all the more believable and allows the story to become more complex and suspenseful. But, I am getting ahead of myself. Ali's story begins, as does each of the three parts that make up this beautifully decorated and bound book, with a quote from the Qur'an. Ali is born into the wild, on the banks of the Upper Nile, near Luxor. While he never knows his father and often regrets this, his mother tells him that his father was a prince among camels and the fastest runner in the herd. Ali spends his milk days close to his mother, peacefully grazing the ruins of the Ancient Ones at Karnak. There his mother teaches him about his honorable past by showing him the pictures and hieroglyphs carved into the vast columns standing there. Ali's mother tells him that the history of camels, unlike the donkeys also pictured on the columns, is to never submit fully to the "man-beasts," as the camels refer to humans. She tells him that camels should never nuzzle a man beast the way she nuzzles Ali, that they must always bite the hand that feeds them in order to maintain their independence, even while in bondage.
These words have a profound affect on Ali and his perspective on life, as does his belief that his is descended from a nobel line of camels. The teachings of Ali's mother serve him well when he is captured and taken to the camel market in Cairo. When he breaks free and runs like the wind, it seems his fate is sealed in the eyes of the man-beasts. He is captured again and sent off to be trained to race. However, because of his ability to understand human speech he learns that this is his fate and does everything he can to work against it. When he does not fulfil the potential the traders first saw in him he is sold off to the first buyer, a seemingly gullible American who is taking a herd of camels to Texas to train them for military use. Fortunately for him and the rest of the camels, Hadji Ali, called Hi-Jolly by the Americans, joins the group at the port of Alexandria before their departure. Hi-Jolly proves to be a "Camel Whisperer" of sorts and tends to them with love and compassion, understanding the depths of their personalities and capabilities. He also intervenes, when he can, with the sometimes brutal soldiers and others ignorant of the ways of camels.
Within the group of camels who are transported to America are Fatinah, a young female who is full of decorum, Seid, an orphaned camel who never got to experience his milk days with his mother, and Omar, the leader of agroup of camels that were trained to wrestle for the entertainment of their masters. This training has left Omar with a sometimes violent and domineering nature that makes trouble for the men and camels. Completely uneducated in the ways of camels, the soldiers in Texas-America, as the camels refer to it, fail to make the best use of them and it is decided that they will caravan to another encampment for more training under the direction of a new Infidel master, (both the camels and Hi-Jolly refer to all Americans as Infidels throughout the book) Edward Beale. Edward Beale was a real person who had a rich and varied life, serving many government posts with appointments by several different presidents. Beale's work with camels was legendary. He learned Arabic so that he could communicate with his camels and had the body of his beloved Seid exhumed so that his bones could be sent to the Smithsonian for study and they are still on display to this day. As the Surveyor General of California, appointed by Abraham Lincoln, Beale settled Tejon Ranch in 1843. Tejon Ranch is now a thriving community some sixty miles north of Los Angeles.
Beale works with the camels but ultimately realizes that he may not be able to employ the camels in military endeavors. He sends part of the herd, including Ali, Fatinah, Seid and Omar off in a caravan that will cross the desert and ultimately end at Tejon Ranch. During his trek through the desert, Ali memorizes the position of the stars, vowing to obtain his freedom and return there one day. This caravan worked to survey the land. Beale's goal was to prove to the government that he could find a better route to the West than that which settlers were already using and he did just that. Part of the trail he surveyed became what is now Route 66 and served as a route for the Transcontinental Railroad as well. At Tejon Ranch the camels find themselves idle and ultimately unhappy, for it is in their nature to work. Mating season comes and goes, calves are born. Having loved Fatinah from the moment he saw her, Ali bides his time, waiting for her to be ready to choose a mate, showing her care and consideration whenever he can. The fight for her love between Ali, Seid and Omar results in a tragedy that reveals the true natures of the camels and the depths of their personalities. The camels also find themselves at the mercy of the laborers and soldiers left at the ranch and are in danger of being abused or sold to work in the mines during Beale's long absences. Hi-Jolly, at loose ends without the structure of his military work finds himself first enslaved to drink and then to gold. Beale, who also was the first to bring samples of gold mined in California to the attention of Easterners in 1848, mentions this event with a tinge of regret in Exiled. Ali and Fatinah and their young son manage to escape Tejon Ranch and find their way back to the Mojave Desert where their paths cross one more time with Hi-Jolly.
Exiled unrolls like a beautiful Persian rug, exposing new intricacies and colorful details with every new inch that is revealed. I love books that, as well as transporting me to another time and place, teach me something about history that I never knew and inspire me to learn more. Exiled is definitely this kind of book. Karr has done a masterful job of creating a cast of rich characters, human and animal alike, that the reader comes to care for. She interweaves these characters with fascinating landscapes and intense situations that combine to make a one-of-a-kind story that should not be missed.