One of NPR's Books We Love in 2022
In this erudite and piercing biography, best-selling author Reza Aslan proves that one person’s actions can have revolutionary consequences that reverberate the world over
Little known in America but venerated as a martyr in Iran, Howard Baskerville was a twenty-two-year-old Christian missionary from South Dakota who travelled to Persia (modern-day Iran) in 1907 for a two-year stint teaching English and preaching the gospel. He arrived in the midst of a democratic revolution—the first of its kind in the Middle East—led by a group of brilliant young firebrands committed to transforming their country into a fully self-determining, constitutional monarchy, one with free elections and an independent parliament.
The Persian students Baskerville educated in English in turn educated him about their struggle for democracy, ultimately inspiring him to leave his teaching post and join them in their fight against a tyrannical shah and his British and Russian backers. “The only difference between me and these people is the place of my birth," Baskerville declared, “and that is not a big difference.”
In 1909, Baskerville was killed in battle alongside his students, but his martyrdom spurred on the revolutionaries who succeeded in removing the shah from power, signing a new constitution and rebuilding parliament in Tehran. To this day, Baskerville’s tomb in the city of Tabriz remains a place of pilgrimage. Every year, thousands of Iranians visit his grave to honour the American who gave his life for Iran.
In this rip-roaring tale of his life and death, Aslan gives us a powerful parable about the universal ideals of democracy—and to what degree Americans are willing to support those ideals in a foreign land. Woven throughout is an essential history of the nation we now know as Iran—frequently demonised and misunderstood in the West. Indeed, Baskerville’s life and death represent a “road not taken” in Iran. Baskerville’s story, like his life, is at the centre of a whirlwind in which Americans must ask themselves: How seriously do we take our ideals of constitutional democracy and whose freedom do we support?
"Aslan tells us Baskerville's story with passion and sweetness." — Tunku Varadarajan, The Wall Street Journal
"A rip-roaring tale of a fascinating time in history… Aslan’s vivid storytelling evokes an intriguing cast of courtiers, clerics, desperados and idealists." — Tara Bahrampour, The Washington Post
"Reza Aslan has a unique talent for showing how piety and politics can merge, or quarrel, in the hearts of people. An American Martyr in Persia is a fascinating and thoroughly engrossing biography. A triumph." — Laila Lalami, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist, author of Conditional Citizens
"An astonishing story that underscores the power of biography. In Reza Aslan’s lyrical voice, Howard Baskerville’s short life comes alive as a fantastical fairy tale—a wild and improbable adventure story. [Aslan] reminds us that Iran’s revolution is quite" — Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of American Prometheus
"A remarkable history that echoes to this day, with much to teach us about modern Iran and about ourselves. Read this book and be reminded of the common humanity that can transcend even our own cavernous divides.A remarkable history that echoes to this day" — Ben Rhodes, author of After the Fall