Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company
Original publication date: 1935
If you do a quick scan through reviews for this book, quite a number of them read something like this:
...this is one case where the movie was better.
...I should have just stuck with the movie and not bothered with the book
...The book pales in comparison with the movie
...and so on
That's all fine and well. Yes, the movie is excellent. Yes, books brought to life are often much more interesting than the original work itself. But can't books just be reviewed on their own, without having to compare them to their cinematic counterparts? Or is that impossible nowadays? -sigh- Oh well. It is what it is, right? For now, let's move along.
It's 1914 and the German Army is attempting to claim central Africa. Its local leader has come to a small mission station on the Ulanga River in what was at that time known as the Belgian Congo, and has taken away the converts, food, materials, anything the Army might need to succeed. The stress of it all has killed British missionary Samuel Sayer, leaving his spinster sister Rose on her own. Luckily, she manages to convince Charlie Allnut, the cockney-speaking skipper of the African Queen, to take her on as a passenger. Her grand plan is to take this rambling wreck of a boat downriver to where the German ship Königin Luise sits, and use the explosives Charlie has stored to make the African Queen one giant floating torpedo and blow it up. In her mind, she'll kill two birds with one stone: she'll get revenge for Samuel's death and they'll be doing "their bit" for England. So off they go on their journey -- and along the way they come to learn exactly what stuff they're made of.
The African Queen is really more character driven than plot driven, focusing on Charlie and Rose, but mostly on Rose. Brought up in England, now in her 30s, Rose first lived under the thumb of her father and of English society, then traded that for life with her proper missionary brother. But once all of the restraints placed upon her have disappeared, and have no meaning out there in the middle of the jungle, Rose begins to really live for the first time. Many people who have commented on this novel find her newly-found freedom from such deeply-instilled mores a bit unrealistic, and perhaps her behavior on the African Queen is a bit out of character for someone so repressed, but Rose behaving badly works here. And why not? Her plan all along was to go down with the African Queen when it blows up the the Königin Luise, so really, what has she got to lose? But life, like the Ulanga River, takes some interesting twists and turns, creates obstacles to be overcome, circles back, and catches Rose and Charlie in its flow.
This book was written in 1935, so modern readers may find it slow going. However, if it is at all possible to read the book and not think of the movie, and to get under the surface here, there's a lot to like about it.
--Next up: The Quiet American, by Graham Greene