"Somalia was hardly a starter war zone," concedes Amanda Lindhout, but that didn't stop the freelance journalist from flying into this anarchic East African country in August 2008. Accompanying the 27-year-old Canadian novice -- who planned to file dispatches for the Red Deer Advocate, circulation 13,000 -- was a 37-year-old photographer from Australia, Nigel Brennan.
"I'd like to say that I hesitated before heading into Somalia, but I didn't," she says in "A House in the Sky," her vivid new memoir, co-written with New York Times Magazine contributor Sara Corbett. "If anything, my experiences had taught me that while terror and strife hogged the international headlines, there was always . . . something more hopeful and humane running alongside it."
This time was different. Four days after their arrival in Mogadishu, the pair were kidnapped by Islamic insurgents. The kidnappers demanded $3 million ransom for both hostages, money that neither family could produce. (Neither would the Canadian or Australian governments.)
Thus began an ordeal that lasted 460 days, taking Lindhout and Brennan to a series of secret houses where they were held, at first together, then separately. Treated almost casually and with curiosity by some of her kidnappers, Lindhout would eventually be horrifically raped and tortured. Most of the captors were poor young men, some just teenagers, following orders from unseen leaders. These boys, Lindhout writes, "had been given little more than a weapon, housing, and food, plus the conviction that Allah was behind them."
Lindhout makes the decision -- which Brennan reluctantly follows -- to practice Islam. Her reasons are complex -- she sees it as a "chess move" that allows her to fit in and feel less afraid; her day, which had felt like a "long wait for nothing," is now divided by prayer "neatly into five slices"; the Koran is much-longed-for reading matter that she studies "in hopes of using their religion to talk my way out."
But as the days grind on with no sign of ransom or rescue, both the captives and the captors begin to despair. Lindhout and Brennan somehow manage to plot an escape from the house, through a high bathroom window blocked by iron bars anchored in crumbling cement. When the plan is put into action, it results in a sequence of almost unbearable, page-turning drama.
But ultimately, "A House in the Sky" is about spiritual survival -- the title refers to the mental exercise that enables Lindhout to endure her darkest days, building a dwelling, room by room, floor by floor. That imagined refuge, like this clear-eyed book, is a testament to human endurance.