128 pages – Middle/High School – Historical Fiction/Based on a True Story/Global Issues/War
In Short: Based on Salva Dut’s account of fleeing the Second Civil War in Sudan, this brief but intense novel takes readers on a journey across Africa and through time. Park alternates between two narratives: Salva at 11 years old in the 1980s, and Nya’s life in present-day Sudan (2008). Salva’s moving story will draw in readers regardless of age, though the honest depictions of violence and hardship make this novel appropriate for middle school and up. A Long Walk to Water would make an excellent companion for Ishmael Beah’s memoir A Long Way Gone, or Terry Farish’s novel-in-verse, The Good Braider. ALTW could also support a unit on war, historical fiction, or interviewing. Continue reading for a more detailed review, and more ideas for bringing A Long Walk to Water into the classroom!
As a reader: Even as a quick read, A Long Walk to Water gripped me from start to finish. The uncertainty of Salva’s jounrye through and beyond Sudan was palpable. I felt myself trudging alongside him. I felt Park did an excellent job with Salva’s voice. He felt very 11, and seeing the war through the eyes of a boy shows the necessary grimness of the events. Park was wise not to cast Salva as sheltered and innocent; he knows what is happening, and does not serve as a naive narrator to amplify the horrors of war (a la The Boy in the Striped Pajamas). He is torn between childhood and being forced to grow up, and he wavers between boy and man exactly as he must. Another of Park’s strengths here is a straightforward style that mimics oral storytelling, reminiscent of (though not as lyrical as) Beah’s A Long Way Gone, but the tone is as unsettling and deeply touching as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
At times, it was frustrating that the novel is based on information collected from interviews with Salva Dut. The narrative takes uneven strides through Salva’s life, beginning with a day-to-day pace and then suddenly letting years pass between chapters. There were details I wanted that the novel does not provide. As a reader, I was hungry. Also, the parallel narrative of Nya in 2008 Sudan never quite gelled. In the beginning, Nya’s “chapters” were mild annoyances – their pacing is considerably slower than that of Salva’s storyline, and they are so much shorter that they feel more than anything like floating interruptions. Once zi figured out the connection between Nya and Salva’s story lines, I was impatient, rather than curious or excited, for them to merge. The two threads of these stories did not one together smoothly, but instead seemed a clumsy jumble. Even so, Salva’s story is so powerful, and powerfully told, that I can only justify docking one star for Nya’s storyline.
As a teacher: I came to this book by way of a friend whose middle school students, she reports, love it. I can see why. Salva, at 11, is thrust into a world that even adults cannot understand. His story is heartbreaking and miraculous, and it’s based on a true story (aka instant kid reader hook). I considered using ALTW as a piece of our unit on immigration. I decided against it, since the story focuses on Salva’s time in Sudan and the surrounding nations. But I’m already planning on how I will incorporate ALTW into my curriculum next year. Even if I did not teach at an international school, with students whose lives have been affected by violence in their home countries, I would see ALTW as an essential text for any unit on war or revolution. Our perception of war – what it looks like, where it happens, and who it touches – are limited. A story like Salva’s can inspire empathy, and the connection readers will feel to Salva and his companions will deepen understandings of war and violence.
There are great writing opportunities in ALTW, too. While the large gaps in time were frustrating for me as a reader, as a writer and teacher, they were usable space. The “missing” details offer writers a chance to try their hands at creating scenes of their own. I love writing activities like this, because they’re fun, accessible for writers of all levels, and easily differentiated. Advanced writers or classes can be pushed to take on the challenge of emulating Park’s style and creating scenes that fit the storyline, while writers who struggle to create their own characters and stories have the support of the existing narrative.
ALTW concludes with an essay in which Park describes part of the process of novelizing Salva Dut’s real experiences. Using the novel, this essay, and interviews with Salva Dut, students could delve into analysis of the creation of a novel based on a true story. Examining how Park blends fiction and fact allows students a window into a writing process, and culminating in an interview-turned-story project would make for a rich classroom experience for all.
What do you think? How could A Long Walk to Water work in your classroom? Share your ideas in the comments!