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Literature / In Desert And Wilderness

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1884, The River War rages in Sudan. Meanwhile, in Port Said, two engineers, a Pole Mr. Tarkowski and an Englishman Mr. Rawlinson, supervise the maintenance of the Suez Canal. Both widowers, they became fast friends soon after they met, and so have their children - fourteen years old Staś Tarkowski and eight years old Nel Rawlinson. This idyllic life is interrupted when Fatma, the wife of one of Mahdi's generals, in an attempt to join her husband, has Staś and Nel kidnapped, counting on their influential fathers arranging an exchange.

But the children escape - right into the wildest Africa - together with a pair of runaway slaves they trek deserts and jungles, hoping to reach the ocean.

Serialized in 1910-11 in "Kurier Warszawski", W pustyni i w puszczy is one of the most popular novels by Henryk Sienkiewicz. Adapted to movie (and a TV series) twice: first in 1973 by Władysław Ślesicki (starring Tomasz Mędrzak and Monika Rosca), then in 2001 by Gavin Hood (Adam Fidusiewicz and Karolina Sawka).

Also inspired Nowe przygody Stasia i Nel translation , a Steampunk webcomic (read it here), sadly not updated for ages.

Read it in Polish here.


Tropes found in desert and in wilderness:

  • Adaptational Heroism: Chamis is the most villainous of all the kidnappers, while previously working as a servant for Rawlinson. In both film adaptations he's suddenly a Nice Guy conflicted between tribe loyalty and standing for the well-being of the children, dying by Taking the Bullet. In the book, Staś shot him in the head as his very first human target, precisely because how evil and brutal Chamis was. This is often used by school teachers to check who didn't read the book and only saw any of the two adaptations.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: For the first part of the book, Staś is planning to escape his kidnappers, save Nel and get back home post-haste as a hero, confusing his situation with that out of a chivalric novel. Instead, he ends up killing his kidnappers in cold blood (a burden for his consciousness ever since) - and after doing so, ends up effectively stranded in the middle of African wilderness, with no supplies or possible help within thousands of miles. Oh, and it turns out taking care for a constantly sick child companion is quite a daunting task, regardless of everything else.
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  • Beta Couple: Blink and you'll miss it.
    Mea: Mea wants to die along with Kali.
  • BFG: The gun used by Staś is double-barelled rifle, a specific type of gun for big game hunting.
  • Blood Brothers: Common practice among the Wa-hima and their neighbour tribes. Staś himself ends up bounding with Kali this way, and later Kali uses it extensively in tribal diplomacy.
  • Cargo Cult: A village on the shores of the Dark Lake has one of Stas's kites in their shrine.
  • Chekhov's Classroom: Staś trains Idrys in using his breech-loaded, cartridge-fed hunting rifle, quite a novelty back then. Since Idrys dies out of malaria, this leaves Staś as the only person who knows how to use the gun capable of killing the lion.
  • Chekhov's Gun: In form of a literal gun - Staś is given a hunting rifle as a present by his father in the very first chapter. He uses it in more than one critical moment during the story.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The two nice Englishmen from chapter III. They're not just window dressing.
  • The Chief's Daughter: Turns out Kali is chief's son. Not sexy, since it's a children's novel, but cool anyway.
  • Common Tongue: Downplayed with swahili. While it is the lingua franca for Great Lakes region and surrounding areas, neither Staś nor Kali are too fluent in it, leading to a lot of Third-Person Person dialogues and few moments of confusion when wrong words are picked.
  • Darkest Africa: Bit Lighter and Softer, but the continent is still portrayed as disease-ridden wilderness full of murderous predators and aggressive natives.
  • Declaration of Protection: Staś, for Nel, repeatedly. Delivered with zeal.
  • Defiant Captive: Staś keeps a cool head and makes escape plans, meanwhile trying to take as good care of Nel as he can. As well as sow doubt among his kidnappers.
  • Description Porn: Here and there. Africa is breathtaking.
  • Desert Bandits: Idrys, Gebhr and their band of kidnappers.
  • Deus ex Machina: While Nel has malaria, Staś accidentally meets Linde, a dying European explorer (whose entire caravan died of sleeping disease) - and he gives them not only chinine, but horses, supplies and everything he has.
  • Didn't See That Coming: None of the kidnappers expected a fourteen year old boy would not only survive an encounter with a lion, but then proceed to kill them without as much as a blink.
  • Distressed Dude: While kidnapped, Staś actively hunts for opportunities to escape.
  • Due to the Dead: Linde and his men do, after all, get a funeral.
  • Foreshadowing: "But the rifle may shoot several times a row."
  • God Guise: Nel is acclaimed "the good Mzimu".
  • Happily Ever After: The epilogue takes place a decade after the events of the book.
  • Historical Domain Character: Mahdi. And Gordon, but he's already dead when they get to Khartoum.
  • Honor Before Reason: Staś confronts Mahdi, who promises much for converting. Staś refuses, which makes a friendly Greek guy despair over Staś's idiocy.
  • Honorable Elephant: Nel finds a starving, trapped African elephant near their camp. She calls it King and proceeds to feed, tame and train it (not that King needs much training). Then she makes Staś use a good portion of his gunpowder stash to blow up the rocks trapping the elephant. The animal remains loyal for the rest of the story and saves the day more than once.
  • Inscrutable Arabs: The portrayal of Fatma and Muslims in general, who are all either Smug Snakes or just pointlessly brutal.
  • Ill Girl: Nel's delicate health is mentioned right at the start, in chapter I. It's only a matter of time before she catches malaria.
  • Improbable Age: It's a little hard to take all his feats, skills, language fluency, knowledge and actions when Staś is just fourteen. It was rising eyebrows right from the time the book was published. Film adaptations ended up casting a 19 and 16 year old.
  • Killer Gorilla: Attacks the group while crossing a rainforest, gets killed by King.
  • Liberated But Loyal: Token Black Friends Kali and Mea are Africans enslaved by Mahdi's followers. After Staś becomes Kali's master by killing Gebhr, their kidnapper and Kali's previous master and Nel becomes Mea's mistress, the heroes consider them friends - but the Africans are still very loyal and Kali even calls Staś "great master".
  • Living MacGuffin: Nel's main purpose in the plot is to motivate Staś.
  • Lost Tribe: Kali's people, the Wa-hima.
  • Loyal Animal Companion: Nel's Big Friendly Dog, Saba and King, whom she tamed and had Staś rescue.
  • Maid and Maiden: Dinah is Nel's Maid and caretaker until she dies. Later the maid's duties are taken over by Mea.
  • Men Act, Women Are: Zig-zagged. Nel doesn't do much, except inspire sympathy and loyalty in people (and animals!) - but that helps them indirectly more often than not.
  • The Natives Are Restless: That's how Mahdi's rebellion is portrayed. Then there are internal politics of the Wa-hima tribe.
  • Native Guide: Subverted - Kali is from Africa, he knows how to get about in Africa - but where he's from is a different part of said continent, and he has no idea where exactly they are.
  • Omniglot: Staś is Polish/English bilingual and speaks good enough Arabic and Swahili to get by in Africa.
  • Panthera Awesome: The inevitable lions. Wobo, which is probably a cheetah (essays have been written about what exactly it is).
  • Plucky Comic Relief: Kali's simple-minded wisdom provides half the humour.
  • The Quiet One: Mea has maybe ten lines in the entire book.
  • Say Your Prayers: As he approaches the lion, Staś starts mumbling one under his breath. Before he even finishes the trinitarian formula, the animal attacks.
  • Sick Episode: Nel comes down with malaria, which gives her fever and nightmares.
  • Sinister Minister: The Wa-hima shaman does not take kindly to the weird new people who bring out his lies.
  • Slavery Is a Special Kind of Evil: Out of the long list of the kidnappers' vices the fact they are slave traders is explicity brought up every chance given.
  • These Hands Have Killed: Staś kills Chamis and Gebhr to finally escape which causes him some pangs of conscience. In the end he's told it was the right thing to do, since he was defending a lady.
  • Third-Person Person: Kali and Mea, who are probably eloquent in their respective native tongues, but not so much in Swahili.
  • Thirsty Desert: The one they have to cross in the finale.
  • Token Good Teammate: Downplayed with Idrys. He's still a religious fanatic and a kidnapper, but he's trying his best to treat the children well and he's often disgusted with the pointless cruelty of Chamis and Gebhr. Appropriately, he's the only one who isn't killed by Staś and dies peacefully of malaria instead.
  • Trail of Bread Crumbs: One of Staś's escape attempts (using Nel's gloves). Later on he makes and lets loose to the winds kites with their whereabouts, hoping to attract rescuers.
  • Translation Convention: All the dialogues are written in Polish, with a hefty helping of Third-Person Person, while they are spoken in-story in five different languages. The convention only becomes apparent when tired Staś slips into English and Kali (who doesn't speak it) is overjoyed for being called "donkey".
  • White Man's Burden: Mild, since Staś is 14, but if that wasn't for him, Kali would still be a slave.
  • What Could Possibly Go Wrong?: Sure, let's give the boy we mistreated for few months a gun and a handful of cartridges, surely the lion will kill him anyway.
  • Wretched Hive: How Omdurman is portrayed. Khartoum, too, but only when ruled by Sudanese.
  • Would Hurt a Child/Would Hit a Girl: Gebhr would beat Nel, but this is Berserk Button for Staś.