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The Sands of Karakorum ()

Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels

    Every author, I suppose, has at least one story inside him that simply has to come out; the writing
    of which is less a matter of conscious planning and decision than of sheer inner compulsion.  Such a
    story--for me--is Karakorum.  Originally conceived in 1939, it has, ever since, teased and haunted
    me and given me no peace.  again and again, over fourteen years, I have returned to it, worked on
    it, struggled with it, despaired of it, abandoned it--and always, once more, returned to it.  And now,
    at last, here it is: no longer merely an idea and a dream, but an accomplished fact in the pages of
    book.  it is a long, long journey from idea to performance, from dream to reality, and it is not for
    me to judge how successfully I have accomplished it.  But at least I have now told a tale that I have
    had to tell.  And I have exorcised a ghost.
            -James Ramsey Ullman (as quoted on the dust jacket of The Sands of Karakorum)

James Ramsey Ullman should stand as a disheartening object lesson for authors everywhere.  A best-selling novelist in the 50's, his books were routine picks by the Book of the Month Club and he coauthored Tenzing Norkay's autobiography.  Today, only one of his books remains in print--Banner in the Sky, a children's book, which was a Newberry Honor winner.  Meanwhile, I found The Sands of Karakorum at a used book sale years ago and it is one of my favorite books of all time.  It is startling to realize that even a popular author, with at least one outstanding novel to his credit, can simply disappear from the bookshelves.

The novel tells the story of an American journalist, Frank Knight, in China who has befriended a missionary and his wife,  John and Eleanor Bickel.  Set in the early years after the Communist Party takeover, the novel deals with Frank's epic journey to try and find the Bickels, who have seemingly disappeared into the chaotic Chinese countryside.  As Frank searches, he reveals the life story of John Bickel--a star football player at the University of Nebraska, Bickel devoted his life to God after an intentional brutal tackle ended up killing an opponent.  Frank recalls an instance that he witnessed when Bickel attacked a soldier who was accosting a young girl.  After hurling the man into a wall, Bickel crumples to his knees and asks:

    What would you have done?...Christ, sweet Savior, what would You have done?

Frank tries to comfort him, to no avail:

    What else could you have done?  He wasn't a man.  He was a wild animal.

    No, said Bickel.  No, he was a man.  That's the terrible thing.  He was a man, sick in his soul; a
    man who needed God's help.  And all I could do was return violence for violence, evil for evil.

As Frank's search takes him from Shanghai to Sanchow to Ningsia to Borba and on to the edge of the Gobi Desert and the approaches to Karakorum, ancient capital of Ghenghis Khan's Mongol Empire, he pieces together the recent happenings in the Bickels' lives.  He finds out that John sought to work with the Communists until a crowd, whipped into a frenzy by Red Army propaganda, ransaked the mission and raped and murdered the couples' twelve year old daughter.  With his faith nearly shattered, John's life long quest for God is now taking him to one of the most barren and forbidding places on the planet.

When Frank finally catches up to Eleanor, it turns out that John has left even her behind, as he revealed in a letter:

    Forgive me, my dearest, but this is a thing I must do.  Whatever the journey, whatever the cost, I
    must find what is beyond the Black Sands.  God Bless and keep you.  John.

Eleanor understands that John is obsessed:

    To search...Sometimes I think that has been the whole of his life. It was why he bacame a minister.
    And why he came to China.  For most of the others the usual things were enough: a pleasant parish,
    weddings and sermons, advice and comfort.  But not for John.  For him it had to be China: so poor,
    so wretched, so full of darkness.  search and faith--they were the same thing.  To find light in the
    darkness.  To make a dead tree bloom again, or a garden grow from a desert.

but she insists on accompanying Frank when he continues his search.  They trek through wasteland and desert sand storms, until it seems impossible that John could have survived on his own, but Eleanor tells Frank about a time in recent weeks when she came upon John reading the Bible:

    "Read it aloud, John.  The way you used to."

    "So he read, and it was from Job, and he had read it often before: Canst thou by searching find out
    God? Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection?

    "And then the answer: It is high as heaven; what canst thou do?  Deeper than hell; what canst thou

    A few minutes passed before she spoke again.  Then she said:

    That's how I know, Frank.  I may not have known then, but I know now.  That all the rest may be
    dead, but not he.  That he must go on living, go on searching.  That this is what he is doing
    here--now; searching, as he has always searched--"

    She didn't finish.

    "For God, Elly?"

    "For whatever it is," she said, "that is beyond the Black Sands."

In the quote at the start of this review, Ullman talks about how this story haunted him until he finally wrote it down.  The demon that he exorcised comes to haunt the reader.  The story of Frank's search and of John's wrestling with his own faith and of what they find in the Black Sands of Karakorum is one of the most affecting tales in all of literature.  It will stay with you for a long time, if you are lucky enough to find a copy of this outstanding, but now forgotten, novel.


Grade: (A+)