I wanted to read this book because when I first moved to Vermont nine years ago, I was surprised to see some very tall and very dark-skinned young men (since, after all, Vermont is the second whitest state in the nation). I learned they were "Lost Boys" -- refugees from the Sudan who had come to Vermont for an education. The stories in our paper about the men were fascinating. I was especially taken with their plans to trade cows for wives.
Later -- a year or so ago -- I watched "God Grew Tired of Us", a documentary about the lives of four Sudanese refugees finding their way in America. I laughed seeing the men experience an escalator, an airplane, electricity, and a refrigerator. But their story isn't really funny.
Neither is What is the What. Kids shriveling and dying in their footsteps, eaten by lions, shot at by angry villagers, or recruited for guerrilla warfare at age 9. But the politics and history behind the war in the Sudan was fascinating. Seems a lot of the problems stemmed from oil -- hmmm, think of that? And I know government oppression and murder shouldn't be a surprise, but to think of what these children went through -- being forced out of their villages and hiking and across hundreds of miles of dangerous lands with no food, clothing, or shelter. And surviving to live in encampments for 10-15 years before being given the opportunity to go to America.
In America, I'm not convinced that Achak's life was better. Without giving away a good part of the story, his life was pretty tough. His girlfriend was killed, he worked very hard for little money, he was robbed and assaulted. The poor guy kept persevering and hoping though. He is currently in school in Pennsylvania and has started a foundation that uses proceeds from the book to build schools in the Sudan. (See http://www.valentinoachakdeng.org/history.php for more details.) How someone finds such strength is beyond me.
But as Achak reminds, we're really all the same. Just trying to get by with what we got:
"The refugees created a life that resembled the lives of other human beings, in that we ate and talked and laughed and grew. Goods were traded, men married women, babies were born, the sick were healed, and just as often...went to the sweet hereafter."
So no matter where we are, what demons are chasing us, or what we have or do, we're all usually just eating, talking, laughing, and growing. There were times when I'm sure Achak was and is just as happy as I am. Everyone is or isn’t, I suppose. No matter what cards they're holding.
So should you read? Of course. It's historical, foreign, frightening, vital, inhuman. And unfortunately, true.