Friday, October 2, 2015

Historical Fiction: The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami

Today's selection was nominated for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but ended up losing to Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. Laila Lalami's The Moor's Account follows a Muslim man from early 16th century Morocco as he follows Spanish Conquistadors to the New World.

The Situation: Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Adussalam al-Zamori decided to write down his account of what happened during his years of slavery to the Castilian explorers. After his home city of Azemmur, Morocco fell to the Portuguese in the early 16th century, the economy took a downturn, and so did Mustafa's work as a merchant. Desperate to earn some money for his mother, sister, and twin brothers, Mustafa makes the difficult decision to sell himself into slavery. After serving in a home with another slave, Mustafa is sold again so his master can cover his gambling debts. Now that he is under the ownership of a Castilian Captain, Mustafa follows his new master to the New World as the Spaniards search for gold and their own land to conquer.

The Problem: Naturally, a journey to the New World is going to be risky, but a trip that is initially dangerous continues to get more dangerous as time goes on. Each Native American tribe the group encounters can potentially mean either kindness and a new set of allies, or danger and the threat of death or being taken prisoner. Of course, the Castilians are looking to conquer what the Native Americans already consider their own, claiming it all in the name of Spain. As a slave with no freedoms of his own, Mustafa is attempting to serve his master at the best of his ability, while also dreaming of his freedom and being able to return to his family in Morocco. But both his service and his fantasies of freedom are frequently interrupted with his attempts at mere survival. And if the group isn't under threat of attack from the Native Americans, or being torn from within due to dueling egos, then there is also sickness, starvation, and thirst that they must deal with. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in the early 16th century. It begins with Mustafa stating who he is and why he has decided to write out his own account of what happened when he traveled to the New World. He then begins to go into the very beginning of the journey, before going back even further and describing his childhood in Morocco. He will then go back and forth between the trials of the New World, and the events that led him to selling himself into slavery in the first place. Eventually, the story sticks exclusively to encounters with various Native American tribes, especially as the crew grow more and more dependent on their kindness, or at least their willingness to take them in if they work and earn their keep. The group of conquerors were initially planning to come in and take over the land, while also hoping to find gold. But they are eventually reduced to working for the people they viewed as beneath them and were willing to convert for their country. While this may be a fictionalized account, many of the events and people Mustafa mentions do appear in our real history.

My Verdict: This book didn't change my life or anything, but it is a good story. And despite it not being the most original idea as a whole, the idea of having it told from the viewpoint of a man who sold himself into slavery was unique to me. Even though he voluntarily entered into that less than desirable position, he still had many of the same struggles and the same desire to one day earn his freedom. Also, some of the stories regarding interactions with the Native Americans weren't just fictionalized versions of the same stories we have all read in history books. The author put a great deal of thought and detail into Mustafa's story. And even though the reader knows Mustafa survives, because how else could he have written this first-person account, you still become invested and worry about his survival.

Favorite Moment: Pretty much any instance of the Castilians suffering at the hands of the Native Americans, since their original intent was to take their land and enslave them, or even simply kill them off.

Favorite Character: It is incredibly easy to side with Mustafa, despite his own shortcomings. Plus, his side of the story is the only one we are able to get.

Recommended Reading: For historical fiction that focuses more on European history, I recommend The Day of Atonement by David Liss.

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