Learning Out of Books: “The Road To Samarcand”

The Road To SamarcandDerrick, an American orphan, has been living in the care of his guardian Uncle Sullivan, captain of the schooner Wanderer in the South China Sea. But now his uncle decides that it’s time for Derrick to get a proper education in a real school and plans to hand the boy over to Professor Ayrton, Derrick’s English cousin. The Professor is heading to Samarcand (these days spelled “Samarkand”) to participate in a major archaeological expedition and proposes that he and Derrick travel overland by the Great Silk Road. Uncle Sullivan, first mate Ross, crewman Olaf, and cook Li Han come along for the adventure through China, Mongolia, and Tibet.

By the end of the novel, the irony of this beginning is thick. Derrick insists that he doesn’t need school because his experience aboard the Wanderer has already taught him everything he needs to know about sailing. The adults insist that learning from books will be more useful to him.  But the boy is ultimately proven right. In conversations with his elders, and his sometimes puzzled observations of events unfolding around the party, Derrick learns the things one doesn’t entirely grasp from books: the difference between soldiers who fight to defend and pirates who aggressively steal; how people who preach the ways of peace often have no compunction of killing those who disagree with them; the pain of losing friends. Long before he’s had his “real schooling”, Derrick is given a lifetime of valuable lessons.

Patrick O’Brian is already one of my favourite authors from his more famous Aubrey-Maturin series of novels set during the Napoleonic Wars. This earlier book begins in what any O’Brian fan would consider familiar territory: a storm at sea. But the majority, of course, takes place completely on land without even a coastline in sight. Fortunately O’Brian’s skills as a storyteller don’t rest on something so trivial as genre; he is capable of being a fantastic writer no matter where his characters set their feet.

And the characters themselves are always colourful, each with their unique speech patterns and outlooks on their changes of fortune. Derrick is all wide-eyed curiosity. Professor Ayrton is a fish out of water when it comes to anything but digging up the past. Sullivan is gruff but kindhearted. Ross is tough as nails. Olaf is ready to deal with anything no matter how strange it seems to him. And Li Han is anxious to learn from the professor’s wisdom. With such a varied bunch, comic situations abound, especially with the professor and his attempts to pepper his language with “Americanisms” to make Derrick feel more at home, and his bravery in impersonating a Russian weapons expert while knowing nothing of weapons whatsoever.

The Road To Samarcand is a short novel, but packs a lot of punch. Action is not always plentiful, but adventure isn’t always about action. It’s about characters pushing themselves to overcome obstacles and in the process learning about themselves and the world they live in. It sounds dangerous. It sounds hard. It sounds rewarding. I’m not a big outdoors person; I’ve never really liked hiking or camping or climbing. But as I read this book I found myself wanting to take a road trip somewhere — I didn’t care where, as long as I’d never been there before and as long as I learned something new.

And maybe if I could bring along a good book or two. It seems like they have something to teach us after all.

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