Beyond the River of Shame

Written by Ken Czech
Review by Jackie Drohan

Closely based on the true history of S.W. Baker, the famous British explorer who was credited for mapping the Blue Nile and discovering its source in the mid-19th century, Beyond the River of Shame traces the history and journeys of Sam and his wife Florie von Sass, whom he purchased at a slave auction in 1858.

The relationship cost him his first marriage and nearly ruined his reputation in Victorian English society. In his debut historical novel, academic historian Czech does an admirable job of making a murky and still socially charged history come to life in a short and readable format. He compacts a lot of narrative into its pages, from the slave auction to the long journey to Lake Victoria, and from buffalo and elephant hunting to narrow escapes from floods and hostile tribal leaders. Despite persistent clichés and some confusing shifts in setting and perspective, the style is readable, although one wonders at times how much the history, compelling in itself, benefits from Czech’s fictionalization.

The reader looking for authoritative clarification of Baker’s motives and morality may also be a little disappointed, as the writer’s perspective on the questions surrounding Baker seems a bit timid. Perhaps this is Czech’s intention. As a historian, his mission is to spread interest in such questions as much as to resolve them, and in this he succeeds. The book left me googling to learn more about this famous couple, and the scandal their marriage generated in its time. Czech succeeds best in shedding more light on Florie’s courageous contribution to Sam’s accomplishments.

Fans of African exploration stories and the Victorian era will find the book a gem.