What is the What by Dave Eggers
First line: “I have no reason not to answer the door so I answer the door.”
As a kid, I had a book of science experiments and interesting facts about the world. One page contained a pie chart with a spinner. You had the same odds of landing that spinner in a tiny, designated sliver of the whole pie as you did being born in the United States. At the time, this was a new concept to me. I would spin it over and over again, wondering how life might be different had I been born somewhere else.
The title page calls the book both the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng and a novel by Dave Eggers. As Achak Deng writes in the preface, “this book is a soulful account of my life.” Eggers spent years interviewing Achak Deng in order to tell his story using as authentic a voice as possible.
Although the story begins with Valentino as an adult living in the United States, we are quickly transported back to his happy childhood in a southern Sudanese village. Through Valentino’s six-year-old eyes, we watch as his village is overtaken by militiamen. Homes are set ablaze and people attempting to flee are murdered. Valentino manages to escape but does not know the fate of his parents. He spends the next several years of his life on the run, evading armed forces (and occasionally wild beasts), battling disease, and struggling to find enough food and water to survive in the African desert. His journey begins alone, but he soon meets up with a group of newly orphaned boys like himself, the so-called “Lost Boys” of Sudan. As they make their way toward a refugee camp in Kenya, the boys encounter unspeakable horrors, but there are also moments of laughter and the teasing typical of young boys.
Once Valentino reaches the refugee camp in Kenya, his troubles are far from over. While learning to navigate the politics of the camp, Valentino is also going to school and improving his English. Eventually, Valentino is chosen as one of the Lost Boys who will be given a chance at a life in the United States.
Now a grown man and full of optimism, Valentino flies to Atlanta to start his new life. Although he has the support of a generous and caring host family, Valentino faces a whole new set of obstacles, including discrimination, isolation, loneliness, racism, and the sense of defeat that comes with toiling day after day to still just barely get by. A deeply religious man, Valentino’s faith is shaken by the sheer amount of loss and misfortune he has endured. Despite this, he never loses his belief in the power of education and the good of humanity.
The story is compelling, but it’s also Valentino’s rare introspective voice that kept me from putting the book down. Through it all, he never loses his wry sense of humor and quick wit. Reading his story felt like growing up with him–seeing what he sees, his thoughts running through my head. I came to feel very close to Valentino; I wept and raised my fist to the sky with each new tragedy he suffered. It is a special soul who can cross this sea of violence, loss, and indifference to human life and come out on the other side with his faith in people intact.
This book is absolutely heartbreaking. It is also eye-opening and inspirational. It is a reminder to me the power of positivity and endurance. Reading Valentino’s story has helped me put my own life and struggles in perspective and keeps me from taking for granted some of the privileges afforded to me simply by being born where I was.
F.Y.I.: This book contains descriptions of graphic violence.