What Is the What by Dave Eggers

November 11, 2008
What is the What is a story about keeping faith in humanity even if all the world seems to be against you. “This book is a form of struggle, and…to struggle is to strengthen my faith, my hope and my belief in humanity” (xv, Preface). To go through the things that Valentino and hundreds of thousands of other “Lost Boys” have gone through and make it is certainly not an easy task. Valentino questioned God in those heartbreaking moments after his friends and loved ones died one after another: “God is in my life but I do not depend on him…God is not a reliable God” (358) but kept going, thinking of a better future even if a better future was not visible.

The story's overall tone of voice is unlike other authors and is really compelling, at other times, humorous. For example, the first sentence in the book: “I have no reason not to answer the door so I answer the door.” (3) The introduction to the story and how the author chose to write the story is clever. Eggers lets Valentino tell “silent stories” to people who have no idea of the pain and suffering that he has gone through. It allowed the reader to see Valentino's unanticipated struggles in America while connecting the story at the same time. The story weaves the deeper qualities of life: love, God's existence (Christian), friendship, alliances, survival, the purpose of life, and others into the story.

A story based on the true life of Valentino Achak Deng, What is the What written as a novel by Dave Eggers. Through many interviews, e-mails, telephone conversations, tape recordings, and other means of communication, Valentino and Eggers worked together to create this 535-page book that relays a compelling story about Valentino's life in Africa and almost in parallel, his life in America. Valentino's village is attached by the murahaleen, or Arabian bandits, and Valentino escapes as an unaccompanied minor with the separation of him and his family members. He walks with other “Lost Boys” to Ethiopia over the course of several months and then to Kenya, where he lives for quite a few years. In Kakuma (the Kenyan refugee camp he lived in), he met many new people and immersed himself in his studies and extra-curricular activities. He was also a youth leader. He spent most of his childhood in refugee camps and is now living in the United States of America. The irony of experiencing violence in America and leaving the violence in Africa links the story together.

What is the What is one of those books that a reader will not be able to forget, the heart wrenching and touching stories that show the endurance of man. It's a book that often changes readers' perspectives and changes the audience themselves. Although some criticize it being written as a fictionalized account of Valentino's life as compared to nonfiction, I felt that it allowed a more detailed glimpse than other accounts, offering something that other books didn't. Skillfully written, it should not be missed.

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