In Africa, good deeds and noble intentions never guarantee a promising fate. The continent possesses a will of its own, choosing to reward villains...

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“Acts of Faith”

by Philip Caputo

Knopf, 669 pp., $26.95

In Africa, good deeds and noble intentions never guarantee a promising fate. The continent possesses a will of its own, choosing to reward villains and punish the virtuous as it sees fit.

This unsettling premise permeates Philip Caputo’s new novel, “Acts of Faith,” a gritty, spellbinding epic that captures the human drama of civil war in southern Sudan in the 1990s.

“Acts of Faith” is told through the eyes of a fascinating cast of bush pilots, aid workers, missionaries, Arab raiders and African rebels, all of whom are firmly convinced of their differing moral purposes. Caputo explores the minds of these diverse characters and dissects their complicated motives.

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In so doing, he weaves a modern saga about the dangers of self-righteousness, masterfully showing how seemingly good intentions can lead to drastic, unintended consequences. True to its setting, the book captures Africa as a beautiful but tragic place that should be regarded with respect and humility by all who set foot on its soil.

Be forewarned: this is not a whimsical summer read. Caputo, a former Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent, is known for his meticulous attention to detail, and he does not dance around the gut-wrenching horrors of war. Still, the 688-page novel moves along with ease, thanks to its well-developed characters and powerful, captivating story.

A trio of characters lucidly demonstrates how combatants in political or religious struggles are often motivated by their own desires for self-redemption, clouding their judgment as to whether they are truly doing the right thing. All are profoundly changed by the chaotic events that unfold in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains.

The novel’s central figure is Douglas Braithwaite, a young American pilot and founder of Knight Air Services, which flies humanitarian aid into southern Sudan from nearby Lokichokio, Kenya. Braithwaite’s magnetic charm and apparent altruism gradually disappear as he morphs into a dark, deceptive character fueled by greed and zeal.

Another compelling transformation takes shape in Quinette Hardin, a born-again Christian and Midwestern farm girl in her 20s who takes a job with a charity group that buys back Sudanese slaves from their Arab masters. An unlikely romance pulls Quinette directly into the conflict and recasts her as a rebel operative who turns to her faith to justify Machiavellian manipulations.

Caputo also delves into the psyche of an Arab chief and warlord, Ibrahim Idris, portraying him not as a faceless barbarian but as a conflicted, flawed human being with a conscience just like anybody else.

Among the others thrown into the mix are Wesley Dare, a wisecracking pilot from West Texas, and Fitzhugh Martin, a multiracial Kenyan who handles Knight Air’s logistics. Neither of these characters is religious, but they emerge as the book’s wisest figures, exposing the messy ethics that often accompany missionary work and international aid.

Caputo isn’t easy on his characters, but he’s not excessively judgmental, either. The book repeatedly poses thorny dilemmas that force the reader to wonder if he or she could do any better if faced with the same choices.

By exploring an international conflict through an American prism, Caputo helps U.S. readers see themselves better. He has a unique ability to convey how foreigners perceive Americans — “an optimistic people with an almost childlike faith in themselves and the future” — and how that perception stokes both worldwide admiration and contempt for the United States.

Caputo is characteristically precise as he explains technical processes ranging from flying a plane to firing a mortar to cooking bean stew like a Sudanese villager. His detailed description of Knight Air’s shady accounting methods could serve as a beginning tutorial for MBA students.

The book’s shortcomings are relatively minor. The author relies too often on unorthodox romantic pairings as a dramatic device, and the pace is a little uneven — long stretches continue without Ibrahim, one of the book’s most riveting characters.

But Caputo’s multinational cast brilliantly demonstrates how, depending on one’s beliefs and convictions, “acts of faith” can take on many forms: humanitarian relief, jihad-inspired martyrdom, redeeming slaves, piloting a plane out of harm’s way, missionary conversions, even running guns to Sudanese rebels so they can better defend themselves.

The book also shows how narrow-minded zeal — in any form — can lead to a person’s undoing: “Anyone who does not acknowledge the darkness in his nature will succumb to it … the lamp of conviction needs to be shaded by doubt, or it burns with a blinding light.”

Former Seattle Times reporter Jake Batsell teaches journalism at the University of North Texas.

He can be reached at