Updated: Apr 6
Teá Obreht's Novel
One of the best memories of my life is the night that I got to ride a camel over a section of the Gobi Desert outside of Xian, China. There was something magical about a bunch of curmudgeonly college teachers laughing and singing as we bumped over miles of sand, absorbing the austere beauty of windswept hills and deep abysses.
Since that magical night in 1994, I’ve wondered why camels were never part of American history and the landscape of the west.
Turns out, they were.
The history behind camels in America
By happenstance, I came upon a summer reading list that suggested Teá Obreht’s novel, Inland. When the summary mentioned camels, I was all in, putting the title on my To Be Read list where it sat until I was shot like a rocket to the bookstore to buy it, prompted by an article in National Geographic.
Camels were, in fact, imported into our country by the U.S. government in 1855, after a four-year push for them by the then-senator, Jefferson Davis. While publicly, Davis touted the ability of camels to aid the military in the transportation of goods and the squashing of indigenous peoples, privately, he wanted to secure the route from Texas to Southern California. Jefferson Davis believed that southern slaveholders would be able to expand the institution into the Southwest and open new settlements.
When Jefferson Davis’ plea for camels was finally granted, he was serving as Secretary of State. In that position, he could oversee his pet project. He chose representatives to travel to Egypt, Turkey, and Tunisia buying camels and bringing skilled camel handlers to the states. The camel corps was established at Camp Verde in Indianola, Texas. Thirty-four camels arrived in April of 1856, and 41 beasts arrived in January of 1857.
Enter Teá Obreht
I don’t know Teá Obreht personally, and I wasn’t familiar with her previous 2011 book, The Tiger’s Wife, but I totally get her motivation for writing Inland, a novel that takes place in the Arizona territory of 1893. What happened to her is exactly what happens to me and writers in general. You discover an interesting fact and you just have to know more. The more you know, the more interested you become. Pretty soon, you’re taking note upon note, dreaming about settings, and hearing a chorus of diverse characters in your head.
The impetus for her book, Obreht says, was hearing a “Stuff You Missed in History Class” podcast that talked about the Camel Corps.
“It examined the Camel Corps, its history, and the consequences of the camels’ release into the wilds of Arizona, where they went on to have encounters with locals and settlers. What struck me aside from how bizarre it all was — why haven’t I heard of these cavaliers before? It’s a true story. It’s incredibly fascinating, yet it has no pride of place in the mythology of the Old West. I began researching it.”
What resulted is Obreht’s translation of the reality of the Camel Corps into a western novel of a forgotten episode in our history.
Bizarre and fascinating, indeed.
The weaving together of two stories in Inland
I can’t say reading Inland was an easy or fast read. I had to get through the beginning of it, putting together the pieces of a loose narrative, not sure where I was going.
The story alternates between two points of view: Lurie and Nora. We learn Lurie’s story bit by bit, seeing his history from the time he was a boy up through his present circumstances. An orphaned child of a rapscallion immigrant father, Lurie thinks he’s Muslim but has no real family history to identify with. He wanders through the Southwest, always looking for a place to fit in, and while he’s wandering, he gets into trouble. Lurie’s outlaw status makes him run and hide throughout most of the book. Eventually, Lurie becomes a cameleer for the U.S. Camel Corps.
Lurie’s gift is in talking with the dead. He befriends the ghosts he hears and acts out their needs. The urges of the dead cause Lurie to participate in petty thievery.
The homesteading woman
The second point of view is told through Nora, a lonely, angry woman trying to handle the devastation of the dry Arizona desert and a family that is falling apart.
Nora’s husband, the publisher of a small newspaper, has disappeared in the middle of a drought, supposedly to find water, but he has not returned. She has 3 boys, including the youngest, scrawniest one, Toby, who has a constantly shaved head because of lice. Toby is terrified because he’s found weird tracks near their home. Nora, however, is less interested in Toby’s wild imaginings than in the need for survival for her family and her town.
The skill and technique of the author
Teá Obreht purposely creates a new and diverse narrative of the American West by focusing on two very different characters: Lurie has no sense of home; an outcast, a misfit, and a wanderer. Nora radiates a strong sense of place and belonging to home, family, and community. No stereotypic cowboys. No epic struggles of the indigenous Native Americans. Instead, it’s a struggle against the environment and isolation.
The two characters are also skillfully depicted through two very different approaches to time. The reader sees Lurie’s story loping through the book from the time he was a child until the current moment. Nora’s story, however, is condensed into a very tight time period, indicative of her feelings: Shortened. Hardened. Intense.
The two characters, though, have much in common.
Both Lurie and Nora talk to the dead. Lurie not only hears dead people; he acts on their urges. Similarly, Nora has conversations with her long-deceased daughter, Evelyn. Nora speaks to her girl, Evelyn, as if she had not passed and continued to mature into a grown woman almost capable of talking sense into her stubborn mother.
Lurie and Nora are often thirsty. The motif of water floats over the pages. A drought in Arizona results in dry mouths, parched lips, and the longing for a clean, cool, drink of water. People are directly contrasted with the camels who are much better survivors in the Arizona desert and who can go long periods without drinking.
The character that steals the show
While I found the characters Lurie and Nora interesting, I did not find them endearing.
The character I fell in love with was Burke, Lurie’s loyal camel.
Lurie speaks directly to Burke, narrating his story into the fuzzy ears and long-lashed eyes of the only friend Lurie has ever had.
The blending of history into fiction
The novel Inland is most fascinating to me because it is based on a true, little-known story of American history, that of the importation of camels to the American West. (After my camel experience in China, I had always wondered why we don’t have camels, and the research I did after reading Inland answered that question.) Many believe that The Camel Corps was a politically-motivated ploy by Jefferson Davis to expand slavery into the Southwest. While camels proved useful and adapted well to the western climate, they never became popular. Partly because they smelled. They spit. They were unfamiliar.
The muleteers were fiercely opposed to bringing camels into the country and lobbied effectively against anything camel-oriented. Then, the Civil War happened. Texas seceded, and the Camel Corps at Cape Verde, Indianola, Texas, was commandeered by the Confederacy.
Within ten years, the camels had been sold off to private citizens who used them for hauling supplies. Some went South to Mexico, and others were released to wander in the west, creating myths and legends about “the Red Ghost,” and mythic beasts who haunt the sandy hills.
A more real western?
Teá Obreht skillfully weaves historical fact with fiction, capturing this brief foray into the use of camels as beasts of burden. In the process, she brings to life the toughness of women who have to fight to survive, insight into the life of frontier newspapers, the problems with finding water, the fight for growth by the acquisition of railways and county seats, and the mythology of ghost camels who plod quietly through the deserted landscapes.
Don’t read Inland if you want a western a lá Zane Gray.
Read it, instead, if you want to get a glimpse into the diversity of people and problems that populated the Southwest before 1900, and the very real story of camels in the American West.
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