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Guns 'n' Butter
Phillip Caputo's big African saga. By Mary Anne Potts

Photo: Author Philip Caputo
DELIVERING THE GOODS: Author Philip Caputo on a relief flight to repatriate southern Sudanese refugees.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Contributing Editor Philip Caputo's novel, Acts of Faith (Knopf, $27), fictionalizes the lives of aid workers and gunrunning pilots tangled up in the almost 50-year conflict in southern Sudan, a story he first reported for Adventure ("The Dark Skies of Sudan," November/December 2001). With a cease-fire tentatively holding in the troubled region, the book could not be more timely. We asked Caputo how the issues and people he introduced in his article have figured into his new novel.

Sudan is a place that you've revisited several times. Why?

I first traveled in Sudan 30 years ago, often on foot and camelback. The place has always fascinated me, and about five years ago, I heard about these bush pilots who were secretly bringing food, medicine, and ultimately, guns to the southern Sudanese rebels in defiance of the government in Khartoum.

What prompted them to add guns to their aid drops?

Some of the pilots and aid agencies thought that merely dropping grain and medicine over southern Sudan wasn't enough: They believed that the only way to resolve the plight of the southern Sudanese was to help the rebel forces effectively contest the Sudanese army. That idea is what I wanted to understand. In the end, the book is about do-gooders gone bad. It's about how too deep a conviction in something—a religion or a cause—can corrupt people.

After having done extensive real-world reporting on Sudan, why is your new book fiction?

While flying with the pilots, I realized that approaching the situation through fiction would allow me to tell a bigger, broader story. There are speculations that you can't get into with nonfiction; you can't get into the minds and hearts of your characters like you can in a novel. Once I talked to these people about their activities, I could see not only the obvious physical perils, but also the moral perils. I saw indications that perhaps some of the people running guns would be willing to go to great lengths to conceal their activities. In the name of doing what they thought was the right thing, they could end up doing the wrong thing, which is what happens in the novel with at least one of the characters.

Book: Philip Caputo. Acts of Faith

Will the people that appeared in the Adventure article recognize themselves as characters in Acts of Faith?

The book's characters were inspired by real people, but then I allowed my imagination to run. In the end, I tried to make the characters stand on their own. I'm sure some of the people I met will see hints of themselves in the novel, like pilot Dale Roark who resembles Wesley Dare in the book. I'd like to think he'll be flattered, although I can't be sure.

How about Heather Stewart, the aid pilot you flew with on assignment?

She probably will at least be amused. The character and experiences of Tara Whitcomb in the book are similar to Stewart's, since they both were flying aid into southern Sudan. But otherwise, Whitcomb is 90 percent fiction.

Did you draw on any particular books for insight into your characters?

Since I am not a pilot myself, much less a bush pilot, I read Beryl Markham's 1942 book West With the Night while I was researching this novel. I wanted to get some idea of what it felt like to pilot a small airplane single-handedly across the African bush.

To what extent does Stewart's life parallel Markham's?

The main similarity is their daring and self-sufficiency. Both women flew solo over very remote areas in Africa, and Stewart is still doing it. Markham was an aviation pioneer along the lines of Lewis and Clark—she explored Africa by air. Stewart delivers much-needed supplies to desperate people in a dangerous place. The landscape is a lot more perilous now. With wars going on left, right, and center, Stewart's plane is more likely to take ground fire than in Markham's day. Although Stewart can't be very conventional, doing what she does, she is more approachable. I never knew Markham, but she comes across as a very formidable woman. She seems like a figure out of a great 1930s movie, always pushing the limits.

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Photographs by Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos

Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, June/July 2005

• Great Parks 2005: Super Tours, Spectacular Lodges
**Win a Safari: Find out how you could win a safari for two by participating in the Muddy Buddy race or attending the screenings of Emmanuel's Gift.
Steroids on Everest: Some climbers are using them to cope with altitude sickness, but at what price?
Guns 'n' Butter: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Philip Caputo talks about his new novel, Acts of Faith.
Pelton's World: Our man on the scene tells when to fight or take flight.
Croatia By Sea: Contributing Editor Jon Bowermaster's dispatches from sea kayaking along the Dalmatian Coast.
"Life's an Adventure" Reader Photo Album: See readers' photos and submit your own.


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Related Web Sites

The Dark Skies of Sudan
The aid pilots of East Africa wing into war zones, execute low-altitude airdrops, and evacuate wounded rebel soldiers. Whether their motives are missionary or mercenary, all are ultimately sucked into the vortex of an epic-and tragic-struggle. Read an excerpt from Caputo's seminal article.

Acts of Faith
Get reviews and information on Caputo's new novel at Knopf's Web site.

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June/July 2005

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