Godsend is an intense book, loosely based on the story of John Walker Lindh — who joined the Taliban out of what feels like a deeply misplaced longing for religious purity. The main character in Godsend is a young woman, eighteen year old Aden Sawyer, whose father is a scholar of Islam although not religiously observant, and whose mother is an alcoholic. Disillusioned by her California life, Sawyer runs away with a high school friend Decker Yousafzai who presumably has cousins in Pakistan. She cuts her hair short, binds her breasts, and disguises herself as a young man in order to join a madrassa with Decker to study and eventually to cross over into Afghanistan to fight. Sawyer succeeds in deceiving the mullah whose madrassa she joins — sort of — and finds her way to a group being trained to do battle.
The story is graphic in conveying the terrifying danger for this young woman. She survives Decker’s death — he mishandles a bomb during their training and blows himself up. She survives the death of her protector, who knows she is a young woman and seduces her, survives an American drone strike that kills many of her fellow fighters, evades being married off as the second wife of an elderly mullah. We don’t know at the end if she finds her way back, or if she even wants to, but she is still alive.
Young idealistic people often put themselves in danger, and you don’t have to go all the way to join the Taliban in order to do that. In my Peace Corps experience, one of our volunteers had to be permanently evacuated because he challenged a big landowner, who sent people to kill him. Young aid workers in Africa and Asia, who used to be somewhat protected by the sense that they were doing good for the local people, have become targets of forces competing for power and are often in mortal danger. These days Peace Corps volunteers are at much higher risk of dying from readily treatable conditions like dysentery. In the late 1960’s we had a dedicated, U.S. trained Peace Corps physician in Panama City — although you had to get there in order to get help in those pre-cell phone days. The one time I did get really sick, I was too ill to get on a chiva and make the 2 hour ride. Now, volunteers are often treated by local physicians on contract. One young volunteer in China died because fluids were not available fast enough to replace what he was losing through vomiting and diarrhea.
Aden Sawyer is not an especially sympathetic character. She kills an old man during her training to show that she will follow orders without question. She is seeking a kind of purity that no one ever finds — although at eighteen you don’t necessarily know that. But I was deeply drawn into her story, and feared on every page that she would die: through being discovered and unmasked as a deceiver, from a drone strike, from malnutrition and cold, from a knife wound or bullet in battle.
How would Aden find home after what she has seen and done, even if she wanted to?