The Book: Beau Geste by Percival Christopher Wren
The Challenge: A book you own but haven't read
I first saw the movie Beau Geste when I was in middle school or junior high, I think. At any rate, it stuck with me, and when I was in college I found a copy of the book at a library sale. I picked it up, bought it, stuck it on my shelf, and then never read it. Recently, I saw a parody of it, and thought "I should probably read that." I was not disappointed.
Beau Geste tells the story of three brothers: Michael (nicknamed Beau), Digby (Beau's twin), and John. It starts with one Captain de Beaujolais, an officer in the famous French Foreign Legion, coming to the rescue of Fort Zinderneuf in the middle of the Sahara. To his surprise, the entire fort's garrison is dead and arranged in their posts along the wall. Shots are fired at him despite the fort being deserted, his trumpeter goes missing, a confession about a stolen gem is found, and finally, the fort burns down unaccountably. The story then flashes back fifteen or so years, and is narrated from then on by John Geste. He and his brothers are rambunctious orphans with a severe streak of Romanticism and an Eton/Oxford education. They are raised by their wealthy Aunt Patricia, who owns the fabulous Blue Water sapphire. When the Blue Water is stolen, the three brothers run away to join the French Foreign Legion in order to place suspicion on them instead of their family members. There, they meet a rag-tag bunch of misfits from all across the globe, and their adventures begin, taking them through the tough training of the Legion, skirmishes with Tuaregs, the showdown at Fort Zinderneuf, and the epic journey home to England.
As you can imagine by a book written by someone with the name "Percival Christopher", this is not a book for the cynical nor those who sneer at the concept of chivalry. The brothers Geste are undeniably good people: heroic, courteous, and noble (of deed, not title so much). They are the embodiment of all of Hollywood's jokes about the stereotypical British Gentleman. The main tragedy of the book comes from the fact that they are doomed heroes; every action they make is based off of their very rigid moral compass, and it is this inherent decency that causes their downfall. Honor before Reason would be a good motto for them. For example, when they are faced with a band of murderous mutineers, they choose to announce that they are going to tell their Sergeant about the mutiny because to not give the mutineers a chance to give up wouldn't be sporting. One thing to note is that Michael's nickname, which provides the title of the book, translates to "Beautiful Gesture", something that serves as a nod to and an underline of the sacrifice the brothers make to protect their family's name as well as the code behind many of the actions they take.
The book is very much of its time, admittedly. It was published in 1924, and there are a few passages that are uncomfortable to modern sensibilities. A prospective reader should be warned that there are a instances of severe xenophobia, class relations issues, and melodrama throughout the book.
Those flaws aside, this is a vastly underrated adventure novel about the bond between three brothers who refuse to give in to humanity's baser nature even in the face of hardship and death, and who maintain their decency and morals to the last. It's a heartfelt and surprisingly humorous book that I imagine will stay with its readers for years to come.