Sierra Abrams's Reviews > What Is the What

What Is the What by Dave Eggers
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's review
Feb 04, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: biography, nonfiction, historical, on-my-shelf, to-re-read, reviewed
Read in January, 2010

Dinka native Achak Deng (or, Valentino Achak Deng, baptized) grew up in Marial Bai, in Sudan, where his family was happy and his childhood was carefree; where almost everything was in abundance, where he had safety and friends and love. However, it all changed when his city was attacked by the murahaleen (meaning travelers). Now on the run at seven years old, Achak must join a group of thousands of boys, some older, some younger, on a journey across Sudan to the southeast, where their hope and assumed safety lies in Ethiopia.

One word to describe this book, without hesitation: masterpiece. Dave Eggers has talent that everyone should experience at least once in their lives, and Achak’s own voice was prominent throughout the story. I was thoroughly engrossed. I was expecting it to be good, but it is genius. It is full of wild imagination, heart, tempers, death, and souls. These boys – the ones who lived – are now men, most of them living in America, leading a new life. This story, Achak’s story, begins with Achak’s life in Atlanta, Georgia, in the present tense. This was a bit of a turn-off for me at first…I’m never one to get into books that are written in the present tense. It has to be done right, I’ve said. And boy was this done right. The present tense was kept skillfully, consistently. In the beginning, Achak is robbed. And as he is being robbed, and kept hostage in his own home, he begins to tell himself, in the past tense, the tale of his life in Marial Bai, the genocide, the thousands of miles they walked to Ethiopia, and so on. The story slips in and out of this, back and forth, present to past, past to present. It’s like a perfect braid, each piece different and carefully chosen to make the braid whole.

The biggest thing that struck me about this book, now that it is done, is this: In the beginning, I did not know Valentino Achak Deng. I saw a man in his appartment, being robbed. I was interested, but I did not know this man. In the end, however, I felt an overwhelming sense of a journey finished. On referencing to things in the past, I felt a part of this man’s life. I knew who he was, where he came from and what he’d been through. I knew his family, his friends; I understood his weaknesses and I praised his strengths. I was connected with this man whom I had never, ever met. I will always know and remember and love Valentino Achak Deng, now that I have read his story.

The horrors to be found in this story are unheard of here in priveleged America. We have horrors, often, but in a way, it is different from Achak’s experience. It is cut off, perhaps. It is not a genocide. What we see every day is Paradise compared to Achak’s experience. There is shooting, killing, murdering, talk of rape that was not written down in detail in the book, and disturbing injuries that the people experienced. One man had his face ripped off, and was walking around, mad, terrorizing anyone who was near. The Faceless Man, Achak called him.

Nicknames, and just names in general, play a huge part in this story. The Faceless Man is only one of them. Tv Boy, really named Michael. Tonya and Powder. There is the Silent Baby. There is Moses, Dut, William, Amath, Tabitha, Achor Achor. And then, there was William K. Oh, William K. He is by far my favorite character. He was the annoying boy in their Dinka village, a boy who would stretch the truth so far that no one would believe him. While Achak tried to be kind to him, he would have never thought that one day he’d be so excited to reunite with him. But that’s exactly what happened. While walking from one place to the next, trying desperately to reach Ethiopia alive, William K. makes his way to their large group. Achak is glad to have someone familiar by his side, no matter who it is. And William K. hasn’t changed a bit; his stories are still as tall as the sky. This comes in handy, when the boys begin to go mad with hunger and fatigue; William K.’s fantastical stories of a grand and princely life in Ethiopia help Achak to dream, to push forward, to stay alive, no matter how wrong William K. is.

Along with the horrors of the book comes incredible love, power, and lessons to be learned. We see Achak’s love for a girl named Tabitha, his desire to reconcile himself with his captors’ boy who is forced to watch over him, his experiences with American culture, efficiencies, and deficiencies. He has new friends, old friends, friends are leave or die. Friends who are murdered. In the end, we see the comparison between cultures, the stark differences, and the intense similarities. It is amazing and humbling, both ways.

But it is worth it. It is worth every sentence, every word. Every letter. This story emanates power, and the strong voice of a man who walked, discouraged and surrounded by death and decay, and came out on the other side.

(For teens and parents of teens: the content of this book is R-rated, as far as violence and language go. Gory scenes and F-bombs are only half. The sexual content can be rated PG-13. It only shows up in the last third of the book and isn’t explicit: some content involves Achak mentioning cultural issues, differences, and practices; others involve Achak and his friends going through puberty and wondering what to do with their changing bodies.)


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