What Is the What by Dave Eggers
First, a little backstory. Before writing this amazing novel, What Is the What, Dave Eggers spent years hanging out with and listening to Valentino Achak Deng, one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan," those thousands of refugees who were sponsored by both private and federal organizations to come live in America after a lifetime spent in near-starvation, terror and hopelessness, first fleeing their war-ravaged country, then trying to forge a life in the grim camps of Ethiopia and Kenya.
Transportation, three months rent in what was undoubtedly some shabby apartment, and the promise of a minimum wage job, that's what Deng and others were given when they arrived here. Not much… but it felt like astounding luxury compared to what these now-men were used to. Anyway, the point is that though this is technically a novel, the stories herein are all not-loosely based on actual events. Two and a half million people have died in Sudan's civil war. We are extremely fortunate that Deng was not one of them.
Told in the first person—and brilliantly so... there's not a false note or dishonest emotion to be found in these 475 pages—the story jumps back and forth between Deng's present-day life in Atlanta to his remembrances of Africa. There are scenes of great horror and cruelty that are almost too much to bear. There is laughter, here, too, and loyalty and deep love. There's gripping tension, and deep despair, and stunning resiliency. And always there is Deng/Eggers, his extraordinary tale told without melodrama or heroics, his voice immensely appealing, steady and true.
Here's a brief excerpt, as Deng tells of life early on in his first refugee camp...
No one wanted to enter the forest, for in the forest, boys disappeared. The first two who died were well-known for having been devoured by lions, and thus hunting in the forest for building materials became the job everyone chose to avoid. When our number was called for forest duty, some boys went mad. They hid in trees. They ran away. Many ran to Bonga, to train as soldiers, anything to avoid having to enter the forest of disappearing boys. The situation became worse as the months wore on. The forest's bounty was depleted daily, so boys searching for grass or poles or firewood had to venture further every day, closer to the unknown. More boys failed to come back, but the work continued, the construction spread wider and wider.
The winds came one day and blew down the roofs of dozens of the elders' homes. Six of us were assigned the task of reconstructing the roofs, and Isaac and I were busy with this assignment when Commander Secret found us.
—Into the forest with you two. We have no kindling,
I tried to be as formal and polite as I could be when I said:
—No sir, I cannot be eaten by a lion there.
Commander Secret stood, outraged. —Then you'll be beaten!
I had never heard such delicious words. I would take any beating over the risk of being devoured. Commander Secret took me to the barracks and beat me on the legs and backside with a cane, with force but without great malice. I suppressed a smile when it was over; I felt victorious and ran off, unable to hold off a song I sung to myself and to the night air.