A few months ago, I was invited to attend a promotion for Six Months in Sudan, a new book by Dr. James Maskalyk. I declined. I had not yet read the book (though it was already on our book club’s ‘upcoming’ list), and thought that the subject matter would be too heavy for me to fake my way through it. When I heard the title, I figured it was a thinky, political, Romeo Dallaire sort of endeavour, and I was a bit afraid of the where the subject matter might take me, both figuratively and literally. So I passed.
And have cursed myself, often, for doing so.
Six Months in Sudan follows Dr. James Maskalyk from a Toronto emergency room to a Médicins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) office in Switzerland to a rudimentary hospital in Abeyi, Sudan, an embattled border town teetering precariously on the tightrope of an unofficial truce between warring factions.
The first, and most important, thing I tell people about this book (and I have told many), is that it is utterly readable. I chalk this up to the second thing I tell people about this book – it began as a blog. Obviously, that point alone will score it big points with specifically, me, and in general, our community. Dr. James (as I, like those in Sudan, refer to him) is a fantastic writer. It’s compelling stuff, it’s disturbing stuff, it’s heartbreaking stuff, but thanks to a casual style, honest voice and a good dose of humour, it’s not stuffy stuff. Dr. James, without dumbing anything down or raising political ire, manages to offer readers a glimpse into a world most of us will never see – never want to see – firsthand.
Straightforward, without judgement (thanks, I suspect, in part to the watchful eye of MSF officials monitoring the original blog content) and unapologetic, Dr. James tells us what he experiences, sometimes through beautiful, prosaic descriptions, and sometimes in hard, fast, brutal detail. Original blog entries are peppered throughout the narrative, giving readers a nice blend of real-time account and thoughtful recollection.
Personally, I found this book highly relatable. In a past life, I spent the better part of a year in a war-torn country working on a communal farm. I’m not suggesting that a kibbutz in Israel is anything like a hospital in Sudan, but I was once the new girl in a new place far away, flung into a society I had to navigate quickly, making friends and mistakes along the way.
As a blogger, I understood Maskalyk’s compulsion to want to document his experience in the hopes that in doing so, friends, family and an online community might understand, at least a little, what he was dealing with. And, I suspect, as with many of us bloggers, writing is his venue for expressing thoughts and feelings that might otherwise be difficult to convey. Even in all lower-case with errant punctuation, Dr. James’ blog posts certainly capture those things.
And I am a mother, one whose heart broke over and over reading of Dr. James’ experiences tending to the mothers and children that came to the hospital. Some came in time to find relief under the doctor’s deft care. Some came too late. But in all cases, Dr. James managed to humanize his patients in a way that no saccharine infomercial ever could (of course), and when he described the wails of a grieving mother or the silent struggle of a sick infant, the miles, the distance, the differences dissolved. It’s powerful stuff.
When we discussed Six Months, members of our book club showed up toting manuscripts heavy with sticky notes, and the discussion was animated. Does humanitarian work do more harm than good? Is it morally responsible to practice abroad, intent on making changes in a far-off country when there is still so much that could be done to our own system here at home? Are MSF doctors just thrill-seekers running away from commitment? Would it count as stalking if a bunch of 30-something mommybloggers showed up at his workplace pretending to need his (medical) attention? As I said, the discussion was animated. We even later told one member, who unfortunately missed the Six Months meeting, that if he didn’t like the book, he was getting kicked out of our club. We weren’t joking. But he'll like it.
I hear that there will be a few more press stops as Dr. James continues to promote Six Months. I hope so, because if the opportunity to hear the good doctor comes up again, you can be sure that this time around, I won’t pass it up.