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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Count of the Sahara by Wayne Turmel

April 1, 2017

The Book Folks:  London
2015 (PB)

First-time novelist Wayne Turmel has written an imaginative and beguiling novel of historical fiction.  He takes the reader on an evocative journey back to the Roaring Twenties—a time when Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb and subsequent tales of mummy’ curses captured the imagination of the public; when the travelogues and paeans to Lawrence of Arabia created by Lowell Thomas entranced audiences around the country; and when lecturing adventurers, explorers, and charlatans (often one and the same) filled auditoriums, theatres, and “opera” houses from coast to coast.

The Count of the Sahara tells the tale of amateur archaeologist cum con man “Count” Byron Khun de Prorok and his 1925 Franco-American Sahara Expedition, whose goal was to journey some 1,200 miles from Algiers in the far north to Abalessa, in the far south of Algerian Hoggar Province—in an age when roads were primitive, to say the least.  At the end of this excursion he hoped to un-earth the tomb of Tin Hinan, legendary and perhaps even mythical queen mother of the Tuaregs, a primarily nomadic Berber people of the Sahara.  That de Prorok was taken seriously by serious people cannot be denied, for he had the financial and political backing of the French government in Algeria, and the financial and academic support of Beloit College and its anthropology museum in Beloit, Wisconsin.  His expedition team included Maurice Reygrasse, representing the Algerian authorities; Hal Denny of the New York Times; Bradley Tyrrell, a Chicago businessman representing the interests of Beloit College and the Logan Museum; and Alonzo Pond, a young archaeologist who was assistant curator at the Logan Museum, and who went on to conduct numerous prehistoric excavations in northeastern Algeria until 1930, after which he assumed archaeological duties for the National Park Service, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the Cave of the Mounds at Blue Mounds, Wisconsin.

All of the above is part of the historical record.  Author Turmel breathes life into this history by introducing the reader to 19-year-old Milwaukee native, Willy Braun, or “Brown,” as it’s anglicized by Byron de Prorok.  By sheer happenstance, Willy, a pragmatic yet un-lettered jack-of-all-trades (and a self-identified “hick”), finds himself employed by de Prorok, as the adventurer sets out on a grueling lecture tour in the frigid winter months of early 1926, featuring the exploits of the Saharan expedition.  Willy serves as de Prorok’s “presentation technician,” as he operates the moving picture projector and magic lantern slide show to accompany the lectures, and even ends up as a costumed veiled Tuareg “warrior” to lend pizazz to the presentations. In alternating chapters the reader follows de Prorok and his team as they journey deep into the heart of Tuareg territory, seeking the fabled tomb (the expedition is pretty much of a disaster from beginning to end), and then follows Willy and de Prorok on the lecture tour from Grinnell College to Cedar Rapids to Ames and Iowa State College to Augustana College in Moline, Illinois.  The tour turns north to Beloit College, Madison, La Crosse, and Eau Claire—and always there’s the promise (realistic or not) of bigger venues in St. Louis, Chicago, and even New York and Carnegie Hall.

This is a wonderfully crafted novel, part adventure story and part an exploration of human interaction and companionship.  The characters grow and evolve and become very real on their journeys of discovery—whether it be the slightly neurotic Alonzo Pond, the sketchy adventurer/self-promoter Byron de Prorok, or the self-effacing and genuinely kind Willy Braun.

Four enthusiastic trowels for The Count of the Sahara.