Thursday, April 5, 2012

Book Review: In the Presence of My Enemies

A Book You Can Buy From Me? Yes...but as discussed below, I'd really rather you bought another book from me and bought this one directly from Burnham.

Book Title: In the Presence of My Enemies

Author: Gracia Burnham with Dean Merrill (Amazon lists Merrill as the primary author and Burnham as the co-author, but this is Burnham's first-person story)

Author's web page: http://www.graciaburnham.org/

Publisher: Tyndale House

Date: 2003

Length: 307 pages

ISBN: 0842381392

Illustrations: color photo insert

Quote: "My goal in writing this is to tell Martin's story."

Gracia Burnham went with her husband Martin to a Christian mission in the Philippines. The couple, and several other Americans, were kidnapped by al-Qaeda thugs and marched around the jungle as hostages for more than a year. During the confrontation with government forces in which Gracia was rescued, Martin was killed.

In the Presence of My Enemies is Gracia Burnham's memoir; Merrill helped edit it from a mere part of her grieving process into a vivid war story that never sympathizes with the enemy, but never loses sight of their human worth either.

What happens to Gracia Burnham during this story seems to her like mere physical aging from overexposure and malnutrition (their diet was appalling) but is, of course, a sort of emotional maturation. Burnham describes her younger self as a Nice Girl of a kind that's all too commonplace in Christian schools--bland, blonde, complacent, shallow, radically selfish, with a tendency to understand Christianity as "feeling good about myself" rather than actually doing anything. During her prolonged camping trek with al-Qaeda she doesn't suddenly discover any talents, or even become less of an extrovert, but she does become a little less of a yuppie. She learns what hunger and thirst feel like; she experiences situations where bland smiles mean nothing, where practicing Christianity may in fact mean giving food to someone else when she is still hungry.

The moral tone of In the Presence of My Enemies, the precise balance between practicing motherly compassion toward the young men of the enemy (she's able to pity their ignorance and moral confusion) and confusing them with "good guys," give this book a quality few war stories achieve. I've heard men talk about Germans and Vietnamese in tones similar to what Burnham and Merrill manage to sustain in describing al-Qaeda goons; I've not read a book in which a man consistently writes in those tones. This one will give readers something to think about for a good long time.

To how many people can one book be recommended first? Since I'm online, I think first of the people who've been expressing intense feelings about the Trayvon Martin story, who feel that the race wars of the 1960s still aren't over. All of you, on both sides--read this book. Then I remember the wounded soldiers who requested books to read at the Mountain Home Veterans Hospital, earlier this week. I suspect some of them would appreciate this book. Military personnel and their families might want to read this book. All Muslims definitely need to read this book. All Christians will probably enjoy this book. Non-Christians who want to understand how Christians (are supposed to) think should read this book. Basically, anyone who reads English and hasn't already read it might like this book.

The purpose of "A Book You Can Buy From Me" is to help living authors collect some of the profit that's made when people resell secondhand copies of their books. The purpose is definitely not to submarine living authors who are still actively selling their books. So although my physical copy of this book is available in the real world, and you could in theory buy this book from me online, you'd have to pay me to buy an autographed copy from the Burnham Foundation, and it's cheaper and simpler to buy yours directly from the Foundation instead.