Author: John Bul Dau (with Michael S. Sweeney)
Publisher: National Geographic
Publication Date: January 16, 2007
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library
Plot Summary from Goodreads:
One of the uprooted youngsters known as the Lost Boys of Sudan, John Bul Dau was 12 years old when civil war ravaged his village and shattered its age-old society, a life of herding and agriculture marked by dignity, respect, and the simple virtues of Dinka tribal tradition. As tracer bullets split the night and mortar shells exploded around him, John fled into the darkness—the first terrified moments of a journey that would lead him thousands of miles into an exile that was to last many years.
John's memoir of his Dinka childhood shows African life and values at their best, while his searing account of hardship, famine, and war also testifies to human resilience and kindness. In an era of cultural clashes, his often humorous stories of adapting to life in the United States offer proof that we can bridge our differences peacefully. John Bul Dau's quiet pride, true humility, deep seriousness, compassionate courage, and remarkable achievements will take every reader’s breath away.
When looking for a book to match this month's Sudan pick for the Around The World in 12 Books Challenge, I had a rather long list of works from which to choose. My original intention was to find a fiction novel, because many of the books on the list were nonfiction and I wanted to go against the grain. However, I ended up choosing John Bul Dau's memoir as a Lost Boy of Sudan, because honestly...I didn't know much about the Sudanese civil war. Very little, in fact, which I know is a sad thing to admit, given the upheaval that has taken place there. So a nonfiction pick was important for me, as I wanted to read an interesting book and also feed my brain in the process.
In the end, I'm very happy that I chose this memoir. John's story is both tragic and inspiring, and he manages to tell it with a level-headedness that is truly remarkable. After fleeing his village at the age of 13 while it was under fire, John was separated from his family, and began a harrowing 14-year journey through Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya that eventually led him to a new life in Syracuse, NY. He is able to reflect on his life story (and his future) with a level of clarity that I think would elude most of us, given all that he struggled against to get where he is today. His insights illustrate the unrest not only in his home country, but throughout Africa:
"What a crazy world--each country in revolt, pushing its rebels to seek sanctuary in a neighboring country that was in turn dealing with its own problems."
Other than John's voice (which was really the best thing about the memoir for me), the format of the book was the biggest plus. His words are interspersed with historical timelines and facts about the Sudanese civil war, which was crucial for me as a sadly-underinformed reader. Plus, Dau's co-author (Michael S. Sweeney) included interviews with some of John's friends, family, and professors, which added a lot to Dau's original narrative. John's story could easily stand on its own, but these additional details are part of what makes this a truly captivating read.
Obviously, the story of John's flight through Africa is terrifying and ghastly. I was afraid that, once John arrived in America, his memoir would take on a slower pace, which would disrupt the flow of the book. However, that was definitely not the case. It is amazing to read about how a total newcomer experiences your country upon their initial arrival. John had basic knowledge of how things worked in the US, but small things (like seeing a woman drive a car, or using a microwave) were a complete shock for him. Hearing about his journey to become self-sufficient in an entirely new country was inspiring. And again, his insights into our culture were spot-on at times:
"...during the civil war in Sudan, my countrymen starved every day, and tens of thousands went hungry in the dark days in refugee camps, while in America dogs had special meals prepared just for them."
"Americans have so much, but they insist on seeing the glass as half empty instead of half full. To extend the metaphor a bit, when I lived in Kakuma I didn't even have a glass."
Overall, John's memoir left me feeling heavyhearted (for all that he was forced to endure), moved (by his wisdom, and some of the generosity he encountered along the way), and better educated. It is upsetting that crises like the one in Sudan/South Sudan are not highlighted in the US media nearly as much as, say...Lindsay Lohan. But hopefully memoirs like this one will continue to infiltrate the American consciousness:
"The way I saw it, it was like a philosophy question I had heard: If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? The villages of southern Sudan had been attacked again and again, and hundreds of thousands of people had died at the hands of the djellabas. I could see two main differences between that war and the one carried out by bin Laden. First, the villages of southern Sudan had no tall buildings to fall down. And second, no journalists with television cameras captured and shared the news of my homeland's destruction with the world."
Have you read any interesting books set in Sudan/South Sudan? What are the memoirs that have moved you the most?