Many of us who grew up in the 1960s and `70s had coming-of-age epiphanies from our first encounter with the novels of the German author Hermann Hess. His search for personal authenticity and self-knowledge led him famously to observe, “Some of us think holding on makes us strong; but sometimes it is letting go.” And yet there is power in both. Holding onto dreams while letting go of what holds us back has been the wistful takeaway of many a misspent youth of that generation.
But one need not wait for destiny to kick us awake; rather, making it one’s daily business to meet and engage our challenges is the key to an unfettered, fulfilling life. Such are the lessons to be learned by a barefoot shepherd boy in search of a magic coin, an education, and his own mettle, in this wise and expansive first follow-up in the Desta adventure series.
The obstacles to Desta’s dreams are a catalog of human trials: parental neglect, tragic deaths, superstition, religious taboo, violence, physical want, and human betrayal. As Desta struggles to stay focused on his studies and the lost coin, venturing from rural valley to provincial outpost to worldly trading town, he learns the bitter truth of reliance on benefactors: sometimes good people leave you, while the malevolent cleave to you. But it is precisely when Desta realizes that there is no one, not even family, to depend upon, that he begins to grasp what he possesses–an unauthored inner strength that stokes his belief in himself and ultimately restores his faith in the wider world.
When his suffering at the hands of his violent, punitive, and penurious hosts in Dangila, to whom he has been entrusted because they are his father’s relatives, drives a starving Desta to find solace and sustenance elsewhere, he makes the freeing discovery that “there was kindness in complete strangers” and concludes that “the world had a lot more to offer than all his family and relatives combined.”
It is in fact his newfound friend Masud–whose Muslim faith makes him anathema to Desta’s Orthodox Christian clan–who comes closest to embodying what family should be. Masud respects and admires Desta for who he really is, and exhorts him to “never limit yourself. Never listen to anything but your heart. Never be shackled by the beliefs or prejudices of others. You have a beautiful spirit.”
There are many such revelatory moments in this openhearted exploration of the human spirit, and Ambau sustains the story’s spell with the singularity of its timeless setting and ancient civilization, its seasons, cycles, and rituals. There is tension between the hidebound monoculture of Desta’s fortress-like valley, and the forces of modernity remaking life in mid-century Ethiopia. Beyond the horizon, there are modern schools, yellow-haired women with milk-white skin, and metal flying machines.
The author moves effortlessly between Desta’s inner and outer worlds, bringing to life the raucous rituals of the village market, a religious festival’s equestrian spectacle, a pre-modern coffee harvest, and a veritable folk cookbook of food and spirits. And it is this particularity of attention across a vast canvas that makes us credulous witnesses to the spectral voices and diaphanous spirits that emerge from the very rocks and clouds that bracket Desta’s world.
Ultimately, as he taps his own formidable abilities, Desta’s aspirations attract larger benevolent forces that are a match for his challenges. What emerges–mediated by the power of the coin inscribed on his chest–is, reason tells us, pure magic: Desta cures a boy’s crossed eyes; makes horses fly; calms mad dogs and warring countrymen; and virtually wills himself airborne. And yet, in our depths, we sense that some grand cosmic machinery has allied a soul with its source.
Skillfully navigating the inner landscape of his hero, Ambau gently reminds his audience of our power to shape our destiny, and calls on us, in dark hours, to let go of our doubts and allow life’s hidden forces to propel us into the light. With Desta and the Winds of Washaa Umera, he offers, with lapidary clarity, a beautiful primer for the 21st century on the pivotal choices to be made between our meanest and noblest impulses.
Desta reminds us that every day, in the shadowed valleys of our world, luminous acts of grace arise in ordinary lives. Desta’s ascent is nothing less than this storyteller’s manifesto to reclaim our exiled dreams, no matter how far-fetched they seem to others, to benefit ourselves and our world–for just as Desta soars, Ambau suggests, so does humanity progress.
An Amazon review