During recent flights and train rides, I polished off two books that have been on my To Read list for a while.
The first was The Given Day by Dennis Lehane. Set in 1919, this historical novel is very different from Lehane's usual modern day mysteries and crime thrillers, such as Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone, although the setting remains the same- the city of Boston. Lehane's novel attempts to capture the spirit of that age using two interweaving protagonists- Danny Coughlin is a popular and headstrong cop, the oldest son of a respected Irish-American family in Southie and Luther Laurence is a black laborer who moves to Boston from the midwest and ends up working for the Coughlin family. Oh, and Babe Ruth is a character as well. However, what sounds like a recipe for triteness actually works, and the story is sustained by the extensive details that provide historical context- the Spanish flu, the molasses flood, the budding labor movement and corresponding anti-Red paranoia, Italian anarchists, racism, and the Boston Police strike are all vividly described. The result is an interesting and informative portrait of a dark and uncertain time in Boston's (and the entire nation's) history. I enjoyed The Given Day and felt like it taught me a lot about an era that I previously hadn't given much thought.
The second book I read was What is the What, by Dave Eggers (sort of). As explained in the preface, What is the What is the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee who told his story to Eggers, who then transformed what he heard into a book, approximating Deng's voice and using him as the central character and narrator. The resulting mixture of fact and fiction is spectacular, an astonishing tale of survival in which we see the best and the worst that humanity has to offer. I loved it and recommend it wholeheartedly. Achak is a child living in a Dinka village in southern Sudan when his peaceful village becomes a immersed in a larger conflict- a rebel army, the SPLA, has sprung up to fight off the fundamentalist Islamic government who have taken hold in Khartoum, the nation's capitol. The town is targeted for destruction in a series of brutal raids- Dinka men shot, houses burned, Dinka children captured and turned into slaves. Achak escapes and eventually finds himself among a group of over a hundred small boys, led by a schoolteacher named Dut who has decided that walking to Ethiopia is their best chance for safety and survival. The journey is long and treacherous- boys die of disease and hunger, are killed by lions, are shot at from helicopters. Dut does his best to keep them out of sight from both the government-sponsored bandits who want to kill them and the rebels who desire to turn them into child soldiers. Eventually Achak ends up in Kakuma, Kenya, a refugee camp and virtual city, with a population around 80,000. His journey is told through a series of flashbacks and memories, as Achak now lives in Atlanta under his Christian name, Valentino, one of over 3000 "Lost Boys" who were granted political asylum by the United States. The book vacillates between terrifying and touching- the horrific violence seems like something apocalyptic, straight out of The Road, but it's real. However, throughout the story, beacons of light and generosity appear, from Manute Bol (Dinka tribesman turned NBA player) to Jane Fonda's daughter Mary Williams to people like Phil Mays, who acts as Valentino's sponsor and aids him in his adjustment to life in the USA. I was most impressed with the character of Dut, an ordinary man who willingly took on the responsibility of leading hundreds of children through a war zone. Through the story of Valentino Achak Deng, What is the What personalizes the plight of the refugee, and this is the book's great triumph. All proceeds from the book go towards the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation. The government in Khartoum remains in power and is now waging similar destruction in the Darfur region of western Sudan- for more information, go here.