It's the holiday season, and at this time of year thoughts naturally turn to all we have to do. Gifts to make or buy (and wrap), rooms to clean, meals to prepare, cards to send -- it can get a little bit overwhelming and crazy. I myself am very far behind this year. Though we have our Christmas tree up, I've yet to even order cards and still have quite a bit to do on holiday gifts. And like most Americans, these are things that seem important to me.
Until I stop to consider the daily reality of most people around the globe. To them, priorities like trimming the Christmas tree or baking cookies aren't even on the radar. Instead, they're laboring every day for food, for shelter, for clean water and for safety for their children. And that thought humbles me, as it does every time I open my cupboards and find them full of food, or look through my closet and consider all I have to wear. It humbles me, and it makes me mindful of all I have that others do not.
That thought was ever-present in my mind as I read Linda Sue Park's short but powerful novel A Long Walk to Water. Park based her book on the real-life experiences of Sudanese-born Salva Dut. The novel opens in 1985, when Salva is eleven, on a regular school day. Suddenly rebel forces open fire and the students are forced to flee into the bush, leaving their families behind. In the ensuing scuffle, Salva ends up being left behind by the group of survivors. Alone, he struggles to find safety, looking for news of his family and village as he walks to who-knows-where. Along the way he encounters many who are kind and helpful, some who mean him harm, and much tragedy. Even when Salva finds shelter in a refugee camp, the trouble isn't over, and it is many, many years before Salva will know what became of his loved ones on that terrible day.
Park intersperses Salva's story with that of modern-day Nya. Nya's tale is much shorter, but no less moving. We learn of the girl that much of her life revolves around water. The process of getting clean water for her family takes up an enormous amount of Nya's time, as she must travel many miles on foot each day, carrying a large plastic container on her head. Though at certain times Nya's family lives near a lake, the fighting between neighboring tribes means that it's only really possible to stay there during the dry season, when the warring factions are preoccupied with survival. The rest of the year, Nya must walk to water, and doing so is consuming her life and that of her friends as well.
The stories of Salva and Nya are different but parallel, and when Park draws the two disparate threads together it is with a satisfying sense of rightness. Though sparely written, A Long Walk to Water is emotionally charged, and readers will feel a connection to both main characters from the first page on. Park's voice throughout this novel is respectful but never patronizing. While we empathize with the situation, Park never makes either character an object of pity but instead helps readers to recognize the extraordinary dignity and strength that both Nya and Salva display. You cannot help but be moved by this story -- as I envison Nya walking miles each day to gather water that is very likely contaminated, my heart simply breaks.
In reading Salva's story, kids will be inspired to action, to find out how they can help provide clean water for those in Sudan and so many other nations around the world. Salva Dut's organization Water for South Sudan is doing amazing work providing safe drinking water and changing lives. This holiday season, as you make your gift list, consider adding the gift of clean water for someone you've never met -- I guarantee it will be a gift that is never forgotten.
A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, published by Clarion Books
Sample: "The water that filled the hole was filthy, more mud than liquid. It seeped in so slowly that it took a long time to collect even a few gourdsful. Nya would crouch by the hole, waiting. / Waiting for water. Here, for hours at a time. And every day for five long months, until the rains came and she and her family could return home."
Bonus: Linda Sue Park and Salva Dut discuss the book and the mission of Water for South Sudan