Monday, June 23, 2008

What is the What by Dave Eggers

Sometimes I read a book where from the very first page I feel lucky. What is the What is that book to an extreme. Reading this story of one of the Lost Boys from Sudan makes me realize that any concerns or problems I might have are pretty trivial in the grand scheme of things.

This is the story of Valentino Achak Deng as told to Dave Eggers. It is a book of fiction as opposed to a memoir since Achak was only around 6 when he began his march from Sudan to Ethiopia. Eggers used the first person narrative to relay Achak’s voice, but obviously had to make up some dialogue from that time. However, as they make clear on material available at, all the really bad, incredulous seeming stuff did actually happen to Achak.

This book is an epic. It is the story of a boy trying to survive. Soldiers, wild animals, disease, starvation, and exhaustion are all threats to Achak. And, it doesn’t end with him arriving in the United States. The book begins in flashbacks as Achak is robbed, tied up, and gagged in his apartment in Atlanta. After this experience he calls a friend who says to him, “I am, she says, like the boy who cries wolf, except that each time I cry wolf there is actually a wolf.” (pg 231)

It is an amazing and powerful story and gives much insight into living in a refugee camp; Achak lived in camps for eleven years. In the first camp in Ethiopia Achak describes new arrivals, “The people came without end, and each time they crossed the river, we knew it meant that the food we had would need to be further divided. I came to resent the sight of my own people, to loathe how many of them there were, how needful, gangrenous, bug-eye, and wailing.” (pg 235) He talks about how people think of refugee camps as temporary last ditch measures for desperate people, which they are, and he lived in them for more than a decade.

What is the What is truly a remarkable story. It bothers me that the United States or some organization did not better equip these Lost Boys once they were resettled in the United States. If they were over the age of 18, they were on their own working low-wage jobs and trying to go to school at night. The really lucky ones were younger and able to attend high school first. More information on the main character and on Sudan and the current conflict in Darfur can be found at

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