“All I felt certain about was that this experience had swept through my life with a wide broom, pushing away so much that seemed terribly important, right up until that first automatic rifle was thrust into my face.” In October 2011, Jessica Buchanan, a pretty young American dedicated to the cause of educating children and families in war-torn Somalia, was captured by a band of mercenary thugs and, with a fellow aid worker, thrust into a living hell.
Jessica’s portions of the book convey the immediacy of that experience. She had bid goodbye to her husband, Erik Landemalm, and gone with Poul Thisted, an older man who worked with her organization, for a short training workshop in the danger zone. Returning, they were set upon by “pirates” and for 93 days endured torments and deprivations at the hands of mostly very young men high on khat, a local plant that, when chewed, induces euphoria and excitation. Young men with guns, stoned much of the time, desperate for even small amounts of money, senselessly envisioned that they would get millions of dollars for these two prize captives. Jessica and Poul, and this band of child soldiers, co-existed in the scrubby desert, with little and unpalatable food, and water tinged with gasoline.
"An inspiring story, IMPOSSIBLE ODDS still raises many questions.... [T]he central story has a cinematic sense of drama, and the denouement is satisfying..."
Jessica, who comes from a respectable Christian family, had recently suffered the loss of her mother, and one comfort she found was to envision her mother in a star, looking down on her at night. She also imagined comforting times with Erik, who, though she could not know it, was working every minute with American authorities and organizations to effect her rescue. In parallel chapters to those containing Jessica’s recollections, we see Erik, once a religious skeptic, praying with Jessica’s family and imagining the best of times with his young wife while simultaneously tormented with realistic fears of what she might be going through.
We learn that while much money was expended for Jessica, primarily because she had a thyroid condition that required medication, almost none was effectively used, mostly going the way of bribes in all poor countries. Care packages were never delivered, while local doctors, undoubtedly terrified of the political repercussions and the savagery of the pirates themselves, rarely showed up. In the end, it was Jessica’s failing health that saved her. Because her life was imminently in danger, President Obama was able to order a rescue mission. On a night when she had resigned herself to death because of increasing weakness and pain, the SEALs arrived and someone with an American accent said her name. It was as close to a miracle as anyone could expect; both she and Poul had inwardly given up hope, and then all hopes were realized.
An inspiring story, IMPOSSIBLE ODDS still raises many questions. The thoughtful reader will wonder why Jessica and Poul were put in such dire harm’s way by their organization, and whether, as Jessica herself often pondered, they did not provoke the incident just by being in Somalia in the first place. However, the central story has a cinematic sense of drama, and the denouement is satisfying --- Eric and Jessica reunited and now celebrating the birth of their first child. Jessica states that “nothing has softened my conviction that one of the world’s enduring obstacles is the issue of education for children.” Doubtless, if they could properly and openly advocate for themselves, the boy soldiers of Somalia would share Jessica’s ideals.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on August 9, 2013