Charter for Compassion International's Education Global Read
Join author Harriet Levin Millan and Michael Majok Kuch in a Book Discussion
How Fast Can You Run
February 22, 2017, 9 a.m. PT
A migrant novel based on the true story of "Lost Boy of Sudan" Michael Majok Kuch (Read an excerpt below)
“The best war novel told from a young boy’s perspective since Jerzy Kozinski’s The Painted Bird.”—Nyoul Lueth Tong, author of There is a Country: New Writing from the New Country of South Sudan
Set across the backdrop of refugee migration that spans East Africa, The US and Australia, How Fast Can You Run is the inspiring true story of a five-year-old boy's flight from war in Southern Sudan and his journey to find his mother. When the US grants approximately 4,000 unaccompanied minors political asylum, Majok becomes Michael, and he is given a new start in the US. Yet his new life is not without trauma, culminating when a fellow student betrays him. This is the story of a survivor who summons the courageous spirit of millions of refugees throughout history—and it lives on today.
Originally excerpted in The Kenyon Review (currently the #1 literary journal in the US), How Fast Can You Run is written with a poet's ear and by an activist who immersed herself in the refugee community and started, with her son, an eleventh grade high school student, and her students at Drexel University an organization that reunited several Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan with their mothers living abroad, some after an absence of twenty years. South Sudanese author and editor Nyuol Lueth Tong, editor, There is a Country: New Writing from the New Nation of South Sudan, calls How Fast Can You Run, "The best war novel written from a young boy's perspective since Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird.
Advanced Praise for How Fast Can You Run
"This debut novel by poet Millan (Girl in Cap and Gown, 2010) is based on the real-life story of Michael Majok Kuch, one of the "Lost Boys" of Sudan.
In 1988, 5-year-old Majok Kuch Chol-Manga’aai is left behind when his village is attacked, as his mother grabs his baby brother and runs when their village is attacked, screaming at him to follow her. Dumbfounded and in shock, Majok hides. Eventually, he falls in with an older boy named Akol, who convinces him all the survivors are meeting in Upper Deck, Ethiopia. The boys head there, avoiding both wild animals and soldiers along the way. Loss is the one thing they share—that and a desire to survive the casual everyday violence depicted so hauntingly by Millan’s storytelling. Eventually, on the brink of death, they are rescued by Sampson, a Kenyan aid worker, and taken to the Pinyudu Refugee Camp in Ethiopia with hundreds of other boys. The desperate conditions—little food, no latrines—make illness rampant. It is not ideal, but when war also comes to Ethiopia, they are sent, along with thousands of other boys, to a different refugee camp, in Kenya, where Majok later reunites with most of his siblings. In 2000, due to Majok’s determination, they are selected to join the 4,000 refugees the United States will allow to seek asylum, but unfortunately they are faced with racism in their new home. One wonders why Millan did not strike away the thin fictional artifice and call her work a biography. Still, the strength here is in Millan’s ability to fully inhabit Majok’s consciousness; she has crafted a rich tale that authentically portrays—and doesn't exploit—Majok’s refugee experience.
A deeply felt novel of grace and intelligence."
Billy Kahora, the editor of Kenya's premier publishing house, Kwani, writes of How Fast Can You Run:
"Full characterization from Sudan to Philadelphia, exacting detail from beginning to end, clearly visualized African landscapes in all their complexity; there are no broad brushstrokes of civil war, refugee plight and immigration here. A fuller story than How Fast Can You Run cannot have been told of the tragic events of war in Sudan that uproot the young boy from the Dinka plains of Southern Sudan to Kakuma refugee camp to Nairobi and Philadelphia and how he has to fight a different kind of war in America from which he emerges victorious. Epic."
“Harriet Levin Millan has transformed the story of one “lost boy” into an earthy, grittily told, highly affecting novel. With a poet’s piercing eye, attuned ear, and facility for recognizing resonant moments, Millan has written an emotionally rich-veined, dramatically moving and ultimately triumphant story. I emerged from this ingenious, fast-paced novel with the sensation of having been taken along by its protagonist on a poignant, heart-pounding journey, enlarged, and changed.”
~Okey Ndibe, author of Foreign Gods, Inc.
“In How Fast Can You Run, Harriet Levin Millan tells the story of one boy's search for a mother’s love through almost unimaginable pain and suffering. After being separated from his family at the age of five during Sudan’s civil war, Majok and later Mike, the novel’s real-life South Sudanese protagonist, braved war, hunger, and desperate illness before arriving in the United States as a refugee. Millan, who met Michael Majok Kuch when her creative writing class interviewed Sudanese immigrants, brilliantly renders the contours of Dinka and refugee life as well as the internal life of a young refugee tormented by the loss of his family and childhood. Congratulations to Millan. How Fast Can You Run is a marvelous achievement.”
~Deborah Scroggins, author, Emma's War: A True Story of Love and Death in Sudan
“The refugee is the hero of our time, a champion for human survival and freedom. At this hour millions of anonymous men, women and children are fleeing brutal dictatorial regimes, drug cartels, environmental devastation and hopeless poverty. They press up against our fences. With sensitivity, passion and grave reportorial insight, Harriet Levin Millan tells the epic story of a single refugee, the indomitable Michael Majok Kuch, and she gives song to them all.”
~Ken Kalfus, author of Coup De Foudre
"In How Fast Can You Run Harriet Levin Millan turns novel-biography into a genre of its own and shows how empathy can turn into a true solidarity. This is a beautiful and crucial story told by two people, one Sudanese with dreams of independence, the other, an American poet who listens to Michael Majok Kuch through her imagination. For Mike in the United States, Halloween with strange fruit hanging triggers PTSD, ethnicity becomes race, soldiers become white police, tragedy there becomes tragedy here and in the end there is only one life for Mike to live. An enduring image for me—a refugee boy blowing up a discarded bloody surgical glove to make a soccer ball, this bio-novel reminds us that the most human of all activities, the one thing that binds us all is finding beauty even in impossible situations.”
~Mukoma Wa Ngugi author of Nairobi Heat
"In Harriet Levin Millan's How Fast Can You Run, the poetry of pain and trauma leaps off the page as we follow the extraordinary journey of Michael Majok Kuch from a lost boy to a developing adolescent finding his way. A powerful meditation on love, loss, and triumph of survival. A stunning achievement not to be missed.
~Elizabeth L Silver, author of The Execution of Noa P. Singleton
“Because How Fast Can You Run is based on a true saga, the viewpoints and experiences of Kuch come to vivid life and weave a powerful saga of politics, struggle, and survival that's hard to put down. Any reader interested in accounts of the Sudanese war will find this a compelling method of absorbing history at its most meaningful: through the eyes of a young eyewitness who didn't just observe events, but lived through and survived them.”
~Midwest Book Review
“How Fast Can You Run is the story of the indomitable spirit of a boy who overcomes inconceivable loss and countless instances of physical and emotional danger, exiled from everything he had ever known. Millan’s telling of Kuch’s story is a refugee’s dark odyssey that witnesses the vicious realities of the Sudanese conflict and the power of a single human life to overcome impossible trauma with perseverance, hard-won wisdom, and an unyielding grace. Devastating, moving, full of magical grace."
~Tyler Meier, Executive Director, University of Arizona Poetry Center, former managing editor, The Kenyon Review
“With stirring compassion and evocative power, Harriet Levin Millan has recreated the
heartbreakingly courageous odyssey of one ‘Lost Boy of Sudan,’ Michael Majok Kuch, as he escaped the hell of his homeland riven by genocidal conflict to the lonely limbo of a childhood spent in East African refugee and IDP camps...How Fast Can You Run is a novel of the moment as it informs and addresses the hardships, tragedies and wonders facing the 65 million refugees currently displaced by regional and international conflict.”
~Cheryl Pearl Sucher, author of The Rescue of Memory
“The un-imaginable journey of Sudanese refugee Michael Majok Kuch becomes an epic tale through the telling. Genre bursting, this part memoir, part bildunsroman, part adventure tale, and part heart-felt family reunion avoids the pitfalls of many of its predecessors. Full characterization from Sudan to Philadelphia, exacting detail from beginning to end, clearly visualized African landscapes in all their complexity; there are no broad brushstrokes of civil war, refugee plight and immigration here. A fuller story than How Fast Can You Run cannot have been told of the tragic events of war in Sudan that uproot the young boy from the Dinka plains of Southern Sudan to Kakuma refugee camp to Nairobi and Philadelphia and how he has to fight a different kind of war in America from which he emerges victorious. Epic.”
~Billy Kahora, Editor, Kwani
“Generosity and justice prevail in the story-telling. What has been found is an unforgettable individual portrait of all too impersonal war. A book like How Fast Can You Run is an eye-opening experience, awakening empathy for a much wider world.”
~L.S. Bassen, The Rumpus
Preview of How Fast Can You Run
Dry Season, October, 1988, Jalle Payam, Southern Sudan
LOUD BOOMING woke him. He thought it was elephants and opened his eyes. The hut was pitch- black. He needed to pee but was too afraid to step down on his wounded heel or crawl on his knees to the door. He was just a tiny boy, about five years old, afraid of scorpions nesting in the roof grass, snakes slithering through cracks and crocodiles scurrying up shallows. Another loud boom. Bursting light. Flames shot up. The thatched roof was on fire. His mother rushed toward him, holding his baby brother in her arms, shouting, “Kare! Run!”
He sprang up, but didn’t follow her. She was screaming and making him more afraid. He waited for her to come back inside and carry him out. When she didn’t come, he waited for one of his relatives who’d gathered in Juet for the harvest festival and camped outside. He heard their screams and he could feel the heat from the flames. Instead of running all the way to the door, he ran on the balls of his feet through a hole in the side thatch, but she wasn’t waiting for him there and when he called for her, she didn’t answer.
Fiery smoke covered the sky. More huts burning and people screaming. Jeeps pulled up with men in robes leaning out of them, clutching rifles to their chests. He wasn’t wearing shoes or clothes. It wasn’t raining, but trails of lightning-like flashes left people moaning on the ground, so many bodies. He couldn’t tell who they were. Their chests were covered in blood, smeared in such a way that the blood looked like fluffed open birds' feathers. He stopped looking at them, afraid one of them might be his tall, broad father, his forehead cut into six horizontal lines in the Dinka ceremonial pattern, or his small, slender mother, her tongue fluttering between the gap in her two front teeth.
He crouched behind a hut and cried, hoping she wasn’t angry at him for not following her out of the hut.
He heard a man call his name from across the dried-up bog that surrounded his family’s compound. He looked up at him. The man pointed and waved for him to run through it. The man looked like a friend of his father’s youngest brother named Manyuon. Manyuon’s face was still painted in white ash and he was dressed in his brown and white leopard-skin dancer’s skirt. Among all the bodies, he looked like a ghost. To follow him meant to not stay and search for his parents among the people on the ground.
What happened next he would take back if he could.
A hot gust rose. It brushed his arms and chest. The hut he was hiding behind exploded into flames. Smoke seared his eyes. He ran as fast as he could, springing out in one long jump after another, past smoldering huts as a sour odor—burning flesh—spread through the air.
The soil he kicked up sprayed his legs. He dipped with the ground and entered the bog. Crocodiles lived in these shallows. Roots punctured the soles of his feet, ripping open the wound in his heel. Splashing his feet and pulling them up through the mud, he ran after Manyuon through water reaching above his ankles, then into bottomless channels, mud clogging up his nostrils and ears and encrusting his eyelids, every muscle in his body straining to reach the opposite bank.
“How fast can you run?” his mother had asked, stroking his head and kissing him. She told him that he must run very fast, but she didn’t tell him that Areeb armed with AK-47s and RPGs would attack their village that very night. They were cattle herders, but he was small enough to slip past them.
It happened on the evening of the harvest festival. His relatives traveled to Juet for the celebration. There were three Dinka bomas in Jalle Payam—Juet, Alian and Aboudit—built on coarse mounds of Nile swampland, a few hours’ walk from one another—all destroyed now. His relatives came by foot. The men carried dugout canoes on their heads and the women balanced baskets filled with grain or held several chickens upside down in each hand. Some of them came with their cows, lifting gourds of water to their mouths to ease them on.
“God save us,” an old, withered uncle had cried, when he arrived with his wives and children, bent over by the weight of the shells and beads around his neck. In the swamp between villages, they had encountered people fleeing who told them with quivering lips that the northern government in Khartoum was conscripting local Areeb to search out the leader of the Dinka freedom fighters, John Garang, whom Khartoum believed was hiding among them.
Swamp grass stuck to his skin and hair, drenching him in its smell of decay. His hands became machetes tearing through thickets. He twisted through mangroves so snaky, he thought they were moving, terrified that a python would grab his foot, the sound of splashing and slithering all around him, the black night alive with cries and howls.
Hours passed. Shivering and sweating, he found dry land and stopped to rest. Most likely, Manyuon was ahead of him or behind him, and he waited for him to appear. “Manyuon,” he called. No one answered. His breath stopped. Where was Manyuon? He stood there for a long time not daring to move.
If Manyuon hadn’t called him, he’d have found somewhere to hide in the village. Now he was all alone in the bush. He’d never been alone at night. He cowered as he imagined the sharp teeth of an evil spirit, a Nyanjuan, cutting out one of his eyeballs.
“Majok, Majok,” the spirit would call.
He groped for a tree, tall, yet low enough to climb, covered over with leafy vines to hide him. He scrambled upward not even testing his weight as he lifted himself onto the next branch. Perched at the top, he looked out across the swamp. He heard noises borne by the wind—wails, moans, gunshots. He slumped forward and, closing his eyes, pictured the bodies he’d seen lying on the ground. No matter what shape Nyanjuan took—an Areeb’s or his mother’s—he convinced himself that up in that tree no one would find him.
Morning. Evening. Morning. A voice through the leaves, cackling in the air, boomeranging between the branches.
“You, you, up there,” called a boy more than twice his age, at least thirteen years old, in torn, khaki pants and a black, faded, T-shirt, with a Kalashnikov slung around his shoulders. He looked like a soldier, not a member of the army in Khartoum, but one of the Dinka freedom fighters. He balanced on tiptoe, stretched his neck up through the vines and waved a strip of dry meat to coax Majok out of the tree. When Majok wouldn’t come down, the boy passed the meat up through the leaves.
Majok grabbed it from him and bit off a piece. The meat was veined and gristly, too dried out to chew. He rolled it around in his mouth, then spat it out. He wanted to taste his mother’s porridge.
“Hey, what are you doing? That’s meat!”
He looked down at the the boy’s rifle glittering in the sunlight. The boy stood there clutching it. Majok tensed and flung his body against the thick limb he was resting on. He now knew what a rifle was for. He was afraid that the boy had used it to shoot Manyuon and was preparing to shoot him, too.
“Heh heh heh,” the boy’s laughter cackled, “Nyanjuan’s smelled meat. She’s coming up there to get you.” He tilted his head, pressed his rifle to his cheek and aimed. “She thinks she’s so smart. I can’t shoot her anyway. She’s coming for you, but it’s not worth the noise. Maybe next time, okay?”
He sprang off and slid down. When he landed on his injured foot, a sound in the grass distracted him and he fell.
“I’m joking,” the boy laughed, lowering his rifle. “It’s a squirrel. Don’t tell me you’re afraid of squirrels!”
Majok sat in the grass and held up his foot for the boy to see. Reeds and roots tore the skin raw. The area around the wound swelled into a thick lump crusted with pus.
“You’ll have to walk on it,” the boy said. He poked through the stalks until he found the greenest one, ripped it and broke it in half. He pinched out the sap and rubbed it on Majok’s wound. It bubbled up as if to take away the pain. “See, it’s getting better.” He asked Majok his name.
Majok squeezed closed his eyes and said, “Majok Kuch Chol-Mang’aai.”
“You have the spotted bull’s name. Majok, just like me. But I’m not from around here. I’m Akol Majok Akol.” He raised his rifle. “Lucky I found you before the Jallaba. They’ll burn you alive. Let’s go! Yalla!” he said firmly in Arabic, which wasn’t the everyday language of the Dinka in these parts, but they used common phrases. The two syllables in the word struck Majok like a whip. Tears flowed down his face, fast and hard.
Akol ordered him to walk. Majok turned in the direction of the village. Out across the swamp, the village was thick with smoke, gunshots that echoed through the night left an eerie quiet. “Not that way, this way,” Akol said and spun him around. “We’re going East to Kolnyang Payam, then Upper Deck.”
Majok had no idea where those places were. Maybe another village. Later, he found out that Upper Deck was the code name that the freedom fighters used for Ethiopia, but the way Akol said it, it sounded right next door, close enough to walk, when the distance was over a thousand kilometers. He covered his ears with his hands. He refused to budge. “Right now a big lorry is driving your family across the desert. If you want to catch up with it, you need to start walking.” Akol said and nodded in the direction of an umbrella tree with leaves sheathing it on every side. “Come on. We can’t stay here. If the Jallaba don’t kill you, the Murle will find you. They’ll kidnap you and sell you somewhere far away, and you’ll never get home again.”
Exhausted and heartsick, Majok sunk down, burying himself in the coarse grass. He cried for his mother.
“Come on. Just to that tree,” Akol said. “Walk to that tree. Every one of your footsteps will bring you closer to your mother.”
Sunlight picked through the thickets of grass, marking the distance to the tree. Akol pulled him up and pushed him forward. With every little step, pain shot up his leg and across his spine. Limping round about through the grass and reeds, crying for his mother, he trailed after Akol.
They arrived at the tree. Majok huddled and hid himself in its sheath of vines. Akol paced and sighed. He reached in and shook Majok by the shoulders, then dug his hands underMajok’s armpits, his rifle scraping the skin on Majok’s legs. Akol didn’t apologize. If Akol felt sorry for Majok, he didn’t show it. “Turn around. Look over there,” he said.
A foot poked out of the thicket on the other side of the tree.
Akol grabbed it. It belonged to a boy. Akol laughed. “Hahahaha! Why do you cry? Don’t cry.” The boy was broader than Majok and a little older, naked like Majok, his cropped hair dyed orange and his eyes red from crying. The boy kept looking at Majok as if he was trying to figure out something. The boy sobbed and stared. A muffled, “I know you,” came out of him.
“You know who I am?” Majok asked.
The boy stepped forward, pointing to the V-shaped scar on Majok’s forehead. The wound wasn’t fresh anymore, but its memory was painful and up until the attack, he could think of no greater injustice then the time he had an infection in his eye and his uncle Thontiop held him down while his grandmother Nyunkerdit, a healer, slit his flesh with a razor blade to cure him.
“I saw you at the festival. I wanted to play with you, but my father made me wait and eat with him,” the boy said.
The evening of the attack, the dancers wore brown and white skins, their hair dyed orange and their faces painted in ash to look like leopards. They held hands, jammed together in a tight circle and
jumped up and down, high in the air, to fast drum beats. Their cows joined in and prize bulls with bells around their necks. Majok, with a pack of boys, snuck off with pieces of cow liver from their mothers’ tukuls and roasted them over a fire. “You were there?” Majok asked.
“My father was the one who yelled at us for stealing Mang’ok Juet’s cow liver.” Cow livers were reserved for Mang’ok Juet, the tribe’s ancestral spirit. “It’s all because of us,” he sobbed.
Majok embraced him. The two boys held each other and wept. “You must be cousins,” Akol said.
The boy lifted his head.
“What are you called?” Akol asked.
“Biar Bol Ajak.”
None of their first three names matched. If they were closely related, they’d have those names in common. Majok asked Biar to recite his remaining names, but Biar said he never learned them. Majok prided himself for memorizing the names of his ancestors going back ten generations. “Let me teach you a song to practice for your initiation,” his grandmother Nyunkerdit had said, leading him into her hut, after the wound on his forehead healed, “that way you won’t embarrass yourself by crying when your father picks up his spear.”
“What is your clan?” Majok asked.
“Alian.” Biar said.
“My mother’s Alian,” Majok said, looking for the resemblance. Biar didn’t have the smaller, slender features of his mother’s family. He didn’t believe that they were cousins, except in the general sense of belonging to the same tribe, but he didn’t dare to contradict Akol.
Akol turned the back pocket of his shorts inside out, and another small strip of meat tumbled down. “Ahh! Here cuz, here’s some deep love for you.”
When Biar reached for the meat, his fingers brushed the tip of Akol’s rifle.
Akol stiffened and reared his head, “Hey, watch where you put your fingers.”
Akol gripped the trigger, “Duk yot e rian e ang’auich. Don’t jump on a tiger’s raft.”
“Come on, show me how to shoot.”
“Watch it. Do you want to get your head shot off?”
Biar stepped back. “I need to learn.”
“Later. Let’s get going.”
“What do you mean? Where?” Biar asked.
“Tueng, forward. Once we get to Upper Deck, you can train to be a soldier,” Akol said.
“My father is back in the village.”
“No one’s back there. Only Jallaba.”
Majok’s voice stopped in his throat, but Biar’s came on with persistence. He took hold of Akol’s arm and pulled on it. “No, no, he’s looking for me. Please...”
“You trying to take my arm off?”
“I need to go back. Please.”
Akol held the rifle across his body. “And what’ll you give me, a donkey’s salary?” He nodded his head and looked at Biar in the eye, “Trust me, whoever is alive is going to Upper Deck. If your father is alive, you’ll find him there. Once we get there, you’re going to see him.”
Biar sat down on a patch of dry dusty soil and cried. Termites built their nests in seedlings and ants bit people’s legs and toes so badly they swelled to twice their size. Biar’s orange hair glistened in the sun as he bent forward swatting the mosquitos at his ears. “I’m never going to see my family again,” he sobbed.
“You will. You will see them.” “They’re dead. I saw them die.”
Akol became enraged at this. He said that the longer they stayed, the more chances that the Jallaba would find them and kill them and if they didn’t hurry, they wouldn’t catch up with the lorry that their parents were traveling on. A bird screeched in the air and another answered. When Akol heard the commotion, he held his rifle to Biar’s back and forced him up.
The three boys started out and kept on. The elephant grass gave them cover, yellow and brown in every direction. There were many ways to go, none of them marked. Tall with reeds. Prickly. Sharp with thorns. Inhabited with cries and wails. Twisted with wattle. The wattle was scrawny but tall, and it was coarse but low. More dense the further they walked. But the way could not be back.
Majok stopped walking and stood at the bottom of a tree, pushing through the vines that covered it to look for his mother. He hugged the tree and called for her. He was convinced that his mother had run into the swamp like he did and was hiding somewhere. Akol pried his fingers loose. “Let’s go. Keep walking. Hurry! Come on!”
Majok walked, but mostly limped. Occasionally shots rang out. And there were other reasons to be afraid. Akol marked off a few paces, sniffed the air, then walked back to clumps of trampled grass. He buried his nose in a clump to detect whether an animal, most likely a hyena or wild cat, was near, when a different sound—the sound of men’s voices—came closer. The boys ducked down in the stalks.
Something green and red flashed—khaki uniforms and red berets—of at least twenty freedom fighters marching in the direction of the village. “Come on, let’s follow them. They’re headed toward the village!” Biar pointed at them excitedly.
Akol shook his head and waved his hands, signaling for Biar to stay down.
Biar hissed back at him, and Akol rushed over and knocked him into the grass, covering Biar’s mouth with his hands.
The freedom fighters appeared, their eyes hidden behind dark pairs of glasses. One of them took out a smelly tobacco cigar from a pack and licked the ends with his tongue. He lit it, took an extra long puff and passed it around. The soldiers sent it back and forth, flicking ashes into the grass. The stalks were so dry that if a blade caught ablaze, it would spread.
The last of the freedom fighters dropped his cigarette behind him. A curl of smoke rose from the tip. Majok was too far from Akol to whisper to him. Keeping his eyes on the stalks near where the freedom fighter flicked his cigarette, he waited until the soldier reached the others in his unit and pushed himself up.
As soon as Akol saw Majok stand up and start inching through the stalks, Akol motioned for him to get down. Majok smelled the stalks smoldering and heard the sound of seed pods snapping, and he recalled the stench of the burning bodies in Juet the night of the attack.
A long moment passed. Two guinea fowls with tufted heads and speckled black feathers scampered out. Majok ran toward the smoke.
“Stay where you are,” Akol whispered.
“The grass is on fire,” Majok said.
“Get down.” Akol said, balling his hands into fists.
“Put it out, put it out!” Majok cried.
“Get down, now!” Akol said. He slunk through the stalks until he reached the ones that were
smoldering. He used the bulky part of his rifle to smother the smoke before it grew hot enough to blaze. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get out of here. I don’t want them to see us.”
“Why?” Biar asked. “Aren’t you one of them?”
- How did you respond to the book’s setting in rural Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya? What special characteristics does the landscape hold? What is its history? Who are the people who inhabit it? In what ways do you think the setting shapes this story? What problems or possibilities does it set up? How might it have been a very different story if it occurred elsewhere?
- What meaning/meanings do you attach to the book’s title? Instances of running occur several times throughout the book. What themes does running illuminate? How does the title include you? In what ways does the title help you relate to Majok and to the other characters?
- When Majok is fleeing his homeland, he meets a series of people who lead him onward. If these people had not assisted him, how might this have been a different story? What motivates his choices to follow them? What other choices would Majok have had available to him? What factors push Majok along from choice to choice? Do you believe he is indeed controlling his destiny or do you think his survival is mainly chance and luck?
- “It’s chance,” a boy tells Majok after he has just described seeing a woman in the field who he at first believed to be his mother. In this scene (page 87) Majok comes to the conclusion that the woman prevented him from getting killed during a UN food drop. Michael attributes his mother with his survival. How do you think Majok’s mother has helped him survive? Why do some of the boys survive and others do not? What special characteristics do survivors share?
- Many of the book’s themes are related to loss. What instance of loss most resonates with you? How would you react in Michael’s situation?
- Majok is fleeing from a civil war in Sudan. From what you know of civil war in your own country, what comparisons can you make between the two time periods, the two countries?
- Once Majok reaches a refugee camp he encounters soldiers. How do these soldiers treat the boys? What do you think the soldiers expect from them in the different camps? What comparisons can you make between soldiers and police or other people in authority?
- Majok yearns to find his mother. How does this yearning change over the course of the book? What events trigger such changes? How do they manifest Majok’s world view?
- What do you think it would be like to be without your mother and father in the extreme situations Majok faces? Although this book is a novel, it is based on a true story. Did any of the experiences you read about make you feel like what happened to the Majok and the other lost boys could happen to you? How have those experiences lead to a greater understanding of the wider world that you weren’t aware of before?
- Can you find any recurring images or motifs—animals, plants, games, etc. that carry the book’s meaning either symbolically or literally?
- How would you characterize Michael’s experience in America? Is his decision to come to the US rewarded or disappointed? If he could go back in time and choose again, what choice do you think he would make? What would he tell Ayuen, who was so against his coming to the US? What words of wisdom would he impart to other new immigrants?
- Just as the setting was a key element in the section of the book that took place in Africa, how does the US setting shape the story? What opportunities or obstacles does the US setting impart?
- How might Mike’s encounter with the woman from town express the book’s message? What do you think of the woman? Have you ever treated someone from a different ethnic group or race the way the womabn treats Mike? Why does she believe that she can treat him this way? What underlying presumptions does she make?
- At the end of the book, Kim O’Day, her son and her students help Michael to reunite with his mother. Kim and her son could not accept Michael’s suffering. Can you see yourself ever doing something similar for someone in need? What would motivate you, what would hold you back? What new knowledge or ways of seeing the world do you think projects such as Kim’s make possible?
Actual footage from "Lost Boy" reunion with his mother in Australia, July 2009, after being separated for twenty years when their village was attacked and Michael escaped at the age of 5. He then walked with thousands of others to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya where he lived for ten years before being selected for U.S. immigration. To unite more "Lost Boys" with their families, participate in or donate to the Reunion Project Read-A-Thon: www.drexel.edu.
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