In Desert and Wilderness is an adventure novel, which Henryk Sienkiewicz wrote for young readers. The book, which was published in 1911, immediately gained huge popularity among young Poles, who were fascinated with the exotic adventures of Staś and Nel.
Adventure novels, frequently related to travelling, were a very important part of late 19th-century and early 20th-century literature. Books that became very famous at the time, for example, Jules Verne’s Captain Grant’s Children were to an extent models for Sienkiewicz.
Nonetheless, in the case of In Desert and Wilderness, the writer strongly fell back on his own memories of travelling: in 1890, that is 20 years before embarking on the book, he visited Northern and Central Africa. His personal adventures also found reflection in the plot and its background; he saw the Suez Canal and Port Said, he observed the Mahdist War, and participated in hunting African wild game. The author of In Desert and Wilderness had to, however, discontinue his travels when he fell ill with malaria – an experience that influenced the description of the suffering of Nel, a figure very close to the heart of the writer, modelled on Wanda Ulanowska, a nine-year-old daughter of Sienkiewicz’s close friend, Bronisław Ulanowski, a professor at the Jagiellonian University. Wanda also participated in the development of the novel, and it was with her that the writer consulted the content of his book, frequently signing his letters to the girl “Staś Tarkowski”.
In Desert and Wilderness is Henryk Sienkiewicz’s last completed novel, and he lived to enjoy its success. Yet it was only after the Second World War that the novel made its way onto school reading lists. To this day it has been re-edited more than 150 times, and for several decades nearly every student of Polish schools has explored Africa in the footsteps of Staś and Nel. A handful of writers have tried to develop or follow the traces of Henryk Sienkiewicz in his African novel. The best-known among them was Marian Brandys, who, having travelled to Africa, published two books in 1961 and 1962: Śladami Stasia i Nel and Z panem Biegankiem w Abisynii (literally “in the footsteps of Staś and Nel” and “with Mr Bieganek in Abyssinia”). He described the changes in Sudan and Egypt in the five decades following the publication of In Desert and Wilderness. In 1993, Wojciech Sambora published a continuation of the tale, entitled Powrót do Afryki (literally: “a return to Africa”), and in 2005 an online comic strip Nowe przygody Stasia i Nel (literally: “new adventures of Staś and Nel”) was published. In 2014 Leszek Talko wrote a novel Staś i Nel. Zaginiony klejnot Indii (literally: “Staś and Nel. The lost jewel of India”).