Bonnie Brody's Reviews > What is the What

What is the What by Dave Eggers
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Mar 07, 12

Read in February, 2009

I can't emphasize how much I loved this book. It is written in the form of a novel but reads like a memoir. It is about a man named Valentino Deng who, as a young man, recalls his time as one of the lost boys in Sudan.

Mr. Deng is brought to the U.S. by some charitable organization and set up in an apartment in Atlanta, Georgia and enrolled in community college. Unfortunately, he is not given much instruction about American culture and the ways to keep himself safe. He has made friends and is connected with some host families that care for him genuinely and deeply. He himself is a remarkable man - kind, intelligent, hopeful, and motivated to succeed.

In the first few pages of the book, Mr. Deng answers a knock on his door without asking who it is. He opens the door and intruders enter and mug him. He is tied up on the floor, unable to speak or move for several days as the intruders slowly rob what little possessions he owns. While a prisoner of the muggers/robbers he reminisces on his childhood in Sudan and his time as one of the lost boys who has lost his family and is alone making his way across Sudan and facing many horrific dangers. He survives starvation, lion attacks, illness, the loss of close friends and suffers greatly until he reaches a refugee camp. There he remains for years in utter despair and deplorable conditions until he gets to the U.S.

The book describes how Valentino watches his parents, indiginous farmers of the Dinka tribe, executed in front of him by intruders from the north (most likely Darfur).

The title of the book is derived from a Dinka mythology. The Dinkas are indiginous people in southern Sudan. It is said that God came to them and asked them if they wanted to have life the way it was or if they wanted the 'What'. Naturally, they asked what the what was. God said he could not say. The Dinkas chose to keep the agrarian society that had worked for them over generations and the northern Sudanese were given the 'what'. I am assuming it was oil and wealth.

This book is an homage to courage, resilience and the ability to survive in the most horrific of circumstances. Mr. Eggers' writing is superb. I can't recommend this book more highly. It is brilliant, readable and will change the way you view human nature. Like me, I believe it will stay with you for a very long time.
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