Engaging entertaining period piece and character study
Title: The Count of the Sahara
Author: Wayne Turmel
Publisher: THE BOOK FOLKS
Publication date: August 15, 2015
Type: Historical Fiction, Travel Adventure
Characters: Count Byron de Prorok, Willy Braun, Lonnie Pond
Ray’s rating: 4 stars
Part thriller and part period piece, The Count of the Sahara takes an insightful view of a time when intrepid-explorer-jungle-adventures were the rage. The insight offered is from consideration of adventuring versus the adventuring personality.
HELPING THE COUNT TELL HIS STORY
In January of 1925 Count Byron de Prorok, noted explorer of the ruins of Carthage, has returned from his expedition in the Sahara where he discovered the tomb of the Tuareg queen, Tin Hinan. Though of some academic importance, the discovery has yielded little in the way of valuable artifacts or new knowledge. Mostly it has yielded fuel for Count de Prorok’s lecture tour.
The Count’s lectures are well-received by the common folk in a time of vaudeville and silent movie entertainments. His ability to be entertaining in his self-promotion allows him to make money. His talks, however, depend much on movies and slides, so he needs technical help. Such help comes in the form of Wilhelm Braun, a young German-American who knows how to work projection equipment. Willy takes over one night when the Count’s college-supplied assistant proves incompetent. He does so well, that de Prorok offers him a job.
Willy is glad for the paycheck and the chance to leave his Milwaukee home. As he travels between northern cities with de Prorok, he also assumes the role of personal assistant. For all de Prorok’s eccentricities, Willy is compelled to help his boss fight off detractors, a vengeful father-in-law, and governments that consider him a grave-robber.
I had never heard of Count Byron de Prorok before reading The Count of the Sahara. He was a real person, though. His Wikipedia page describes him as a “Hungarian-American amateur archaeologist, anthropologist, and author of four travelogues.” His title was not real but, according to him, honorary. It seems this book’s author, Wayne Turmel, has a fascination with de Prorok, who apparently was an interesting character. He is depicted by Mr. Turmel as smart with a love for archaeological adventuring (treasure hunting) but with little patience for the science. His talent is for promotion and he knows it, saying at one point:
“I take history and all those dates and facts and all that boring…science and translate it for the brainless masses in a way they can actually comprehend. Do you think anyone really cares about science or history unless it comes with a good story?”
And that is the Count’s life in a nutshell, according to Mr. Turmel. The reader is left with the impression of di Prorok being his own worst enemy and probably in the wrong profession. He may have been great in public relations or movie producing. Self-promotion was his driver, though, with a narcissistic desire to be seen as the intrepid explorer. In that, he may not have been so unusual. Thor Heyerdahl comes to mind.
The Count of the Sahara’s narrative bounces between di Prorok’s lectures assisted by Willy in 1926 and the account of his Saharan expedition in 1925. The expedition part shares its point-of-view between di Prorok and Alonzo (Lonnie) Pond. This is where the book’s “adventure” segments come in, though they are not of the Indiana Jones sort. Rather, they are episodes of dangers and close calls stemming from di Prorok’s incompetence and inexperience. They earn the Count chastisement a few times for screwing up. Even so, he is cut some slack. As one character puts it, referring to di Prorok:
“…And, to be fair, it’s not all his fault. Poor S.O.B’s been lied to and snowed since the beginning. Didn’t really know what he was getting into, Just naïve… a green pea. I’ve seen lots of guys like that… ya see them in business all the time. Smart, talented, but they have no business being in charge. He needs a boss to keep him in line. Not everyone’s cut out to be king.”
This touches on a theme of competency and belief-in-oneself. It is expressed in di Prorok’s relation to two characters. One is his assistant, Willy Braun (totally fictional), who is a working class guy with no interest in the Count’s imagined world of exploration and adventure. Willy is self-effacing as a counterpoint to the Count’s proud self-serving. But he turns out to be a good technician and smart in helping the Count out of some dicey situations.
Another counterpoint to di Prorok is Lonnie Pond (a real person who was a real archaeologist). Pond is precise and scientific where the Count is not. He is, in fact, horrified at the Count’s disregard for protocol and method in dealing with the Tin Hinan dig. Even so, Pond has a grudging regard for di Prorok and admits the man is personable, able to attract attention and funding.
WELL-WRITTEN, FOLLOWING THE BASIC FACTS
I found The Count of the Sahara well-written with engaging prose, a good feel for its time-period, compelling characters, and enough action and complications to keep my interest. It also presents Count di Prorok as an interesting character study, so much so that I had to look up the historical record on the man.
There is an error with dating in the expedition sections. Some of these chapters begin with a heading noting the year as 1926 when it should have been 1925 (chapter 18, for instance). The chapter text, however, is clear as to the where and when for the setting. So the error is only a minor annoyance.
As far as I can tell, Mr. Turmel has faithfully followed the basic facts of Count di Prorok’s life. Knowing how “right” he got the Count’s personality would require some research. My hunch, though, is that he came pretty close.
MORE THAN A TRUE ADVENTURE TALE
I picked up The Count of the Sahara expecting a “Jungle Jim” adventure tale. Instead, I found a period piece and character study. I was not disappointed, however, but much enjoyed the book. I highly recommend it as a bit of insight into a time that is long gone. Also, you may find some inspiration for times of self-doubt, when you need to just forge ahead anyway, even if your only support is dreams.