Hostage memoir raises ethical questions

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September 11, 2013

A House in the Sky
By Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett
Published by Scribner
373 pages, $29.99

Reviewed by Lynne Van Luven

Curiosity: it drives humans to new delights and sometimes to near death.

Freelance journalist Amanda Lindhout grew up in Sylvan Lake, Alberta, but she always imagined a destiny larger than her small-town beginnings. In childhood, her gateway to the world was her collection of second-hand National Geographic magazines.
Early in her co-written memoir she describes the aftermath of a violent altercation between her mother and her mother’s boyfriend:
“My mind swept from beneath the bed sheets, up the stairs, and far away, out over the silky deserts and foaming seawaters . . . through forests full of green-eyed night creatures and temples high on hills. I was picturing orchids, urchins, manatees, chimps. I saw Saudi girls on a swing set and cells bubbling under a microscope, each one its own waiting miracle. I saw pandas, lemurs, loons. I saw Sistine angels and Masai warriors. My world, I was pretty certain, was elsewhere.”

And she makes it so. Lindhout is everything a freelancer should be: resourceful, determined, apparently fearless. She leaves Sylvan Lake at 19 and moves to Calgary, where she immediately begins working in bars and restaurants in order to save up for travel. Men disappoint her, but she achieves her life of travel: she backpacks through Latin America, Laos, Bangladesh, India, Sudan, Syria and Pakistan. By the time she gets to Afghanistan and Iraq, she’s a fledgling television reporter. And she has a column in the Red Deer Advocate, which pays her a paltry $35 for each story she files. An amazing start for a self-taught writer, anyone would say.

But then in August 2008, Lindhout goes to Somalia, titillated because it is billed as “the most dangerous place on earth” at the time. On her fourth day there she – and her travelling companion, former Aussie boyfriend and photographer Nigel – are kidnapped.
The bulk of the memoir covers how Lindhout survives her 460 days as a hostage, held for ransom by a rag-tag group of Muslim fundamentalist agitators who blunder into kidnapping the Canadian and the Australian when they really meant to kidnap the other two journalists staying at the Hotel Shamo in Mogadishu – an American and a Frenchman working for – incredible irony here – National Geographic.“I’d like to say that I hesitated before heading into Somalia,” Lindhout writes, “but I didn’t. . . . Surely, I thought, I’d find stories worth telling. Surely, there was merit in trying to tell them. I knew that bad stuff happened. I wasn’t totally naïve. I’d seen plenty of guns and misery by then. But for the most part, I’d always been off to one side, enjoying the good, the harm skipping past me as if I weren’t there at all.”

A House in the Sky takes readers right into the series of sordid rooms, the boredom, the brutality and the sexual assaults that Lindhout lives through. Because she is a woman, she is treated far more harshly than Nigel is, and there are many tensions between the pair. The book raises number of moral questions about putting oneself in harm’s way while fuelled by good intentions. It’s a book every freelance writer and every intrepid traveller should read. Lindhout and Nigel are freed eventually after their respective families come up with a $600,000 ransom. As a result of her ordeal, Lindhout founded the non-profit Global Enrichment Foundation (globalenrichmentfoundation.com) to support aid and education in Kenya and Somalia.
Readers of A House in the Sky may be either inspired or infuriated by Lindhout. Is she an opportunistic voyeur or an idealistic voyager? I can’t quite decide, but the memoir is so well written, that it carries you along, even as you are arguing with yourself about Lindhout’s ethics and sense of responsibility.

Lynne Van Luven once wanted to be a foreign correspondent.

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