Synopses & Reviews
This unforgettable book is the first-person account of a miracle--indeed, a whole series of miracles. A tale of suffering, tragedy, and sorrow redeemed by indomitable resolve and a stubborn refusal to despair, it's set in a Sudan shadowed by unrelenting war and ruthless violence, yet illuminated by faith, generosity, and steadfast commitment to the human spirit's finest instincts. It's also the eloquently plain-spoken self-portrait of a young man who has looked death in the face many times and come away with an inner strength as impressive as it is modest and a wisdom as inspiring as it is matter of fact.
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.
This unforgettable book by one of the uprooted youngsters known as the Lost Boys of Sudan is the first-person account of Daus Dinka childhood at its best, juxtaposed by the hardship, famine, and war that he faced.
About the Author
John Bul Dau is a Dinka from Southern Sudan and one of thousands of Lost Boys who fled their homeland during Sudanese civil war. He found shelter at refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya before coming to Syracuse, New York, where he now lives with his wife and his daughter.
Michael S. Sweeney is a professor of journalism at Utah State University. He is the author of the acclaimed book Secrets of Victory, which was named 2001 Book of the Year by the American Journalism Historians Association.
Reading Group Guide
Michael S. Sweeney is head of the journalism and communications department at Utah State University and the author of several books.
1. After his village was shelled, John Dau began his journey (p. 6) by describing what he lacked: clothing, food, water, family, and safety. Yet he survived to become a success in America. What advantages, if any, did he have over other Sudanese refugees? What do you think was the most important reason he survived?
2. Chapter 1 opens with the words “In the beginning . . .” and describes the ancient Dinka story of a man named Ayuel being cast down to earth from heaven. What insights about a modern Dinka's life story might be gained by starting with such an ancient tale? In what ways does Ayuel resemble other religious or literary figures?
3. John believed his clan of Dinka was predestined to be leaders because Ayuel gave them the spirit of Deng Pajarbe (p. 18). Do you believe that holding such a belief can make a significant difference in one's character? How might it have made a difference in John's?
4. John's father was a famous wrestler in southern Sudan. John said that to be a village's champion wrestler was to be like the winner of the World Series or the Super Bowl (p. 21). How might “wrestling” be an appropriate metaphor for John's memoir? What ideas did he wrestle with as he struggled to survive?
5. John said (p. 35), “Sometimes all you can do is keep going, even in the face of great danger.” What methods did he use to cope with troubles? How effective were they?
6. John admitted the Dinka don't embrace change easily. What cultural values do the Dinka hold most dear? How did those values influence John's life as a Lost Boy in Africa? In America?
7. John's rescuer Abraham lied (p. 49) when he said they would rendezvous with John's missing parents after the shelling of Duk Payuel. He did so to motivate John to keep walking away from danger. Was it right for him to tell such a big lie to a 13-year-old boy? What would you have done in Abraham's place?
8. Journalists and relief workers christened the Lost Boys after the children in the play Peter Pan who lived without adult supervision. The Lost Boys of Sudan had a few adult caretakers to help them but mostly relied on themselves to survive in East African refugee camps. How did Sudan's Lost Boys act like grown-ups to increase their chances of survival? How did their youth color their actions and decisions?
9. American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-70) famously described a “hierarchy of human needs.” It characterized the most powerful needs as physical, including food, air, and sleep. Maslow said that once the most basic needs are met, a human being can turn, in decreasing order of necessity, to securing safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization, which includes morality and creativity. John talked (p. 109) about his “algebra of survival.” How did John Dau's view of survival match up with Maslow's hierarchy while John was in Africa? In America?
10. "Are you a woman?” is a terrible insult for one Dinka man to hurl at another (p. 113). The Dinka culture remains patriarchal while embracing the importance of women (p. 254). Re-read Martha's first-person account of being courted by John (pp. 250-53). How do Dinka women compare with Western women in their relationships with men? Would you characterize Dinka women as strong or weak? Why do John and Martha seem to make a good couple?
11. An Episcopal priest in Kakuma compared the Lost Boys to the Israelites who wandered in the desert between fleeing their captivity in Egypt and coming to the promised land of Canaan (p. 130). Is this an appropriate comparison? In what ways did the Lost Boys try to live life to the fullest in Kakuma? In what ways did they prepare for a better life in the future? How did they maintain their faith and culture?
12. The first elementary school lesson taught in Kakuma refugee camp was about respect (p. 138). Why did John think this was a good way to start formal education?
13. John's first lesson about living in America (p. 163) was about how to dial 9-1-1 in an emergency. Was this an appropriate introduction to America for someone who knew next to nothing about the country? How would you choose to begin explaining life in America to an outsider like John?
14. What does it mean for John to be a Dinka in America? Which parts of his old life did he cling to, and which parts did he drop or modify?
15. Many Americans who tried to help John adjust to life in Syracuse had good intentions but made mistakes. They offered him food he could not eat, gave him clothes he could not wear, and offered friendships he felt he could not accept. What could John and his American well-wishers have done differently to smooth John's transition to life in America?
16. John argued (p. 202) that attention from the news media is crucial to placing a war on the world stage and bringing about its end. Can you think of recent examples where stories or pictures in the news helped change the course of war? In what ways has John learned to work with the media to his and the Lost Boys' advantage?
17. What did John's letter to President Bush (pp. 202-03) say about how he believed a leader should act? What Dinka qualities would John wish for in a president?
18. About the terrorist attacks on America of September 11, 2001, John said that they “have worked . . . to renew my faith,” (p. 206). How is that possible?
19. What did John mean when he said it seemed God had grown tired of the Lost Boys? Does a belief in God's rewarding and punishing human action make life's sorrows and joys easier or harder to accept? What did John believe?
20. What arguments did John make against mercy killing, during his college class discussion (p. 218)? How did he apply those reasons to his own life?
21. What lessons about life in America did John learn from his various jobs?
22. John said he felt greatly blessed (p. 287) but not lucky (p. 275). What's the difference between the two? And how did that difference affect John's journey of survival?
23. John pointed out (p. 275) that everyone in America - even the so-called “Native” Americans - is an immigrant. As an immigrant, how might John be described as a true American?
24. John related the parable of the elephant (p. 276) to describe how he sees a different America than many lifelong Americans do. What advantages and disadvantages do you see in an outsider attempting to describe a foreign culture? How would you describe Dinka culture to someone who knows nothing about it?
25. John said America could learn a lesson about the importance of family from the Dinka. What might a culture of extended families look like in America? Is there a place for one's “tribe” in America - and if so, what is it?
26. Syracuse University Professor Bill Coplin advised John (p. 278), “Before you can feed others, you must first feed yourself.” Was he speaking literally or figuratively, or both? According to Dinka tradition (p. 51), adults cannot eat until all children have eaten. Who do you think is right?
27. Why is John keen to spend so much time and money helping others in East Africa, many of whom he will never know?