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Stories from the Sand 

Dean King’s “Skeletons on the Zahara.”

“I was in the New York Yacht Club library doing research for one of my Patrick O’Brian books,” said King, who’s written two companion guides to O’Brian’s series of historical sea adventures. “I just saw a spine on the shelf that said ‘Sufferings in Africa,’ so I pulled it out and I just couldn’t put it down. It conveyed the desperate struggle of survival and courage and redemption. All the elements of a great story are there in Riley’s narrative.”

It was difficult for King to get back to his research on O’Brian afterwards. But after he finished his second O’Brian companion book, “Harbors and High Seas,” as well as his renowned biography of Patrick O’Brian, he picked up Riley’s account once again. “I had my doubts about it after five years, but after I reading his account again and doing some research it really worked.”

While the story of the Commerce’s crew is a gripping adventure, King was also moved by the political effect it had on the institution of slavery. During its time, Riley’s narrative inspired some of the greatest figures in American history. Abraham Lincoln and Henry David Thoreau read Riley’s narrative, which enforced their anti-slavery beliefs. “Riley could’ve come back and said that dark-skinned people are inferior and barbaric because they brutalized him,” King says. “But he didn’t. When he came back, he was enlightened enough to see that slavery was an evil institution. … no matter who was directing it.”

While in the desert, King put himself through the same rigors that his subjects went through. As he tried to retrace Riley’s route through the desert, he ran across burning sands and jagged rocks in bare feet and subjected himself to the torturous gait, called a “rack,” of a marching camel for hundreds of miles.

The video King shot of his ordeal in the desert was professionally edited into a 12-minute film to show at book parties. The book parties help create a buzz about the book, and at a recent book party in Richmond he sold more than 200 copies. “I try and fuel people’s excitement about the book by giving pretty fun talks about it,” King says. “I show the video footage and I also have some great stills of the desert.”

The trip was sponsored by National Geographic Adventure magazine, which excerpted parts of the book, and the film was directed by Richmonder Lucas Kross. More recently, the film grabbed the attention of Dreamworks, Stephen Spielberg’s film company. Nothing’s official yet, but Spielberg’s interest is a testament to Riley’s mesmerizing tale and King’s intriguing book — not to mention his unorthodox vacation. S

Dean King will be reading and signing his book April 13 at noon at the Library of Virginia. He will also be appearing at the Collegiate Village Fair April 15 & 16, and he will be giving a reading and a lecture at the Richmond Public Library June 8 at 7 p.m.

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