Two books popped into my head: Willa Cather’s, Death Comes for the Archbishop and Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky. A third book came later: Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist.
I came to The Sheltering Sky because I was reading something—an article maybe—and the actor, Ethan Hawke, listed it as one of his favorites. I admired Ethan Hawke and I still do. If not for finding it that way, I may not have come to this book. If I had seen it on a shelf, I may not have been interested. I remember the odd triangular relationship of the characters, the African desert looming, pushing down, having a profound effect on the characters as they each struggled with their own feelings of isolation and maybe even hopelessness. It’s been years since I read this book and I don’t know how well my memory recalls the details. I know that the language swept me in and something held me there through the end. I know that it had enough of an affect on me to stay planted in my memory.
Another book that I may not have read except that it was one of the books for a class that I took is Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop.
The desert played a prominent character, the villages—the whole Southwestern landscape. A part of the book that has stayed with me is when they are trying to reach “The Rock.” I still have my book with underlined passages and reminder notes and here is one small excerpt that still sends me chills of truth:
The rock, when one came to think of it, was the utmost expression of human need; even mere feeling yearned for it; it was the highest comparison of loyalty in love and friendship. Christ Himself had used that comparison for the disciple to whom He gave the keys of His Church. And the Hebrews of the Old Testament, always being carried captive into foreign lands,—their rock was an idea of God, the only thing their conquerors could not take from them. (pg. 97)
It was a difficult book for me to get through. The writing is beautiful and dense. I would read mouthfuls of description, and as much as I admired the beauty in which Cather creates sentences and brings the characters and setting alive, I was drowning in it. And yet, I was so happy that I finished. It took a little while for the depth and beauty to really wash over me. It was a long journey literally and for me as a reader—An unforgettable book.
And last, one of my favorite books because it speaks to the dreamer and elemental in me: Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. This one I bought the first moment I saw it on the shelves and read the back cover. Again, the desert is a powerful character, along with the elements. Even the idea of a dream becomes itself a character and drives the story that is dependent upon the vast Egyptian desert, its inhabitants and nature her and him self. As the Shepard boy, Santiago, embarks on his journey he thinks to himself: “It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting” (pg. 13).
When these books were prompted into my awareness by this week’s blog topic, I had no idea that they would share in common the desert. I have always been in awe of the desert landscape, the way it seems like a dried up ocean that goes on forever and can seemingly swallow anyone who dares to enter. I love desert flowers and succulents, the colors, the way the sands ripple, the warmth, but it’s not a place that I have ever desired to travel except in books. Revisiting these books though, has made me think again and I realize it’s very possible that if I met the desert, I might just fall in love.