Terre des hommes (Wind, Sand and Stars)
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Author: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Geographic Area: Europe, North Africa, South America
Original Language: French
We’ve probably all heard of a little old book called The Little Prince; it’s only one of the best-selling books of all time, and a true classic.
However, you may not have heard of another book by the same author: Wind, Sand and Stars (or Terre des hommes, “Land of Men,” in the original French).
Before Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was known as the imagination behind The Little Prince, he flew airplanes. Specifically, he was among the first to fly airmail cargo from his home base in Toulouse, France to Dakar, Senegal and Cape Juby, Morocco.
Wind, Sand and Stars is his gripping memoir of flying early, unreliable planes over European mountains and African deserts.
Why it's a Great Travel Book
For starters, this is probably the best book on flying yet written. I myself hate flying, even on safe, modern commercial jets, let alone old school propeller-driven planes that hardly had instruments. And yet, this book makes me feel as though I’m right there in the cockpit, flying through the air in search of adventure and loving every minute of it.
On several occasions through the book’s 225 pages, de Saint-Exupéry and his copilot crash their planes. The most intense ordeal sees them leaving the wreckage of their ship and walking 124 miles through the Libyan desert, which nothing but the dew accumulated on their parachutes to quench their thirst. He recounts mirages and other intense hallucinations in vivid detail, as the effects of severe dehydration, starvation, and exhaustion kick in.
In another chapter, they go down in the Andes Mountains and make it out by pushing their inoperable plane off the edge of a cliff so it would gain enough speed to glide to safety.
De Saint-Exupéry writes about his trials and tribulations, as well as the craft of flying itself, with often flowery prose. Wind, Sand and Stars is as much a philosophical book as an adventure book, being in many ways similar to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He captures the spirit of dodging storms at 190 mph as masterfully as he recounts childhood memories of his sisters at their home in Lyon.
A Millennial's Critique
Like I said before, this is an awesome adventure book. However, to really appreciate it, I would recommend perhaps separating the art from the artist.
See, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was born into the aristocracy in the time of European colonialism. People are the products of their time and place, and he’s no different. He was certainly pro-colonialism. You can read that very clearly in the text.
However, in other ways, he was also kind of enlightened for his time.
For example, reading this book taught me that slavery was very much still a practice in North Africa as recently as the 1920s. After the slaves got too old to serve their masters, they were then unceremoniously released back into the world, with freedom they often did not what to do with. De Saint-Exupéry writes about these men literally lying down in the sand and waiting for death in heartbreaking detail.
It is also one of these slaves that he and his fellow pilots help escape. At the risk of starting a war with the local Arab rulers (who already don’t like the French being in their territory), they covertly get him aboard one of their airmail planes and fly him back to his home in Casablance. So, while the author was certainly a product of his times, he does exhibit a level of humanity and empathy that stands head and shoulders above what could be expected.
While buffeted with some unfortunate paragraphs in support of colonialism, Wind, Sand and Stars soars to the top of the adventure literature canon.
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