Sunday, February 24, 2013

For Review: What is the What ~ Dave Eggers

It's been all quiet on the blogging front here, due to editing a novel and teacher training. Besides my readathon, I've had very little time for personal reading. So I've been making my way through What is the What for a while, but I've really enjoyed it.

Based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng, What is the What follows the story of a Lost Boy, displaced from his village in Sudan during a time of political unrest. On his walk to find peace, Achak treks with thousands of other boys across a country that is dangerous with threats of militia,  wild animals, and uncertainty. The journey is a constant struggle for survival, and even settlement has its daily fears and concerns. Eventually, Valentino is given a place in America as a refugee, but the land that was supposed to mean peace, happiness, and every success, proves to be far from ideal.

That's a lot of story to pack into 535 pages, even with the tiny font. But behind Achak's adventures is Eggers, directing his life in a way that is fast paced and easy to read, even in the most difficult places. From front cover to back, I learned a lot. Call me ignorant, but I didn't know about any of this. Of course I knew things about the unrest in Africa, but nothing about how it happened, or why, and certainly very little of child soldiers, or Lost Boys. What is the What explains the history, the politics, and the religious affairs. At points this was quite dense, and a lot to take in all at once, but perhaps easier for someone who knows more on the subject that I did.

Bigger than this is Achak's story - full of death, starvation, lose of faith in humanity, regaining faith, losing faith, heartache, trauma. So many heartfelt, terrible things, and Valentino pulls through. America isn't the haven that he expected it would be, and actually I was more horrified to learn about the discrimation and difficulties received there than of the malnutritioned desperation of Sudan. This isn't an old biography, Achak arriving in Atlanta in 2001, Eggers book first published in 2006. That people can be so backward and unfeeling in such recent years (and the horror to think that racial/refugee discrimination still happens so blatantly and in positions of authority) disturbs me.

But for all the horrific instances in this book, there's a steady strand of love and redemption. The hope that Achak has for himself and for others, and the hope that I had for all the people that were introduced throughout the story, keeps the story moving. Eggers' narrative pushes and pulls with an authentic voice, and the result is a biography that is hopeful and enduring.