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A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

November 21, 2010

Children’s (Teen) Book Review: A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

A Long Walk to Water, SudanI’m always drawn to real life stories of people in other parts of the world, and  I bought the book for myself, but it’s written for tweens and teens. As a parent I encourage my kids to learn about the lives of children in other countries, particularly less developed countries where life experiences reflect a stark struggle for survival.

It’s easy for American kids to become insulated from the hardships other people face, and good books about real people can be helpful in opening their eyes to the incongruities of life and hopefully foster a sense of gratitude and responsibility. This is one of those books.

Linda Sue Park tells the story of two children in Sudan whose lives are separated by 20+ years.  The story of 11 year old Salva starts in 1985 soon after Sudan’s second civil war breaks out.  He is caught in the middle of the conflict between an unstable government and rebel forces. Tribal rivalries complicate the situation, resulting in a very insecure environment.

Salva and thousands of others are forced to flee their tribal lands and set out on a journey of hundreds of miles on foot. Their direction of flight is dictated by the need to avoid areas of conflict since men and boys are often forced into labor by any one of the warring factions. The lines of conflict are not easily distinguished and the best hope seems to be an easterly track toward refugee camps in Ethiopia.

Salva is completely alone on this trek. He had to flee from school and could not go back to his village. He has no idea what has happened to his father, mother, brothers and sisters. The journey is terribly difficult and he has no one to look out for him. Sudanese in similar circumstances form loose groups, but social customs, tribal rivalries and lack of food and water create a situation where not many are willing to take on the care of orphans.

Salva travels for many months to the Ethiopian refugee camps where he spends the next six years. He is still just a boy, but he learns to face life alone, focusing his mental and physical efforts on making it through each day. After six years, the Ethiopian government orders the camps cleared and sends armed soldiers to force the refugees across the Gila River back into Sudan. Chaos breaks out and many are shot or drown as they try to escape. Salva is able to cross the river and emerges as a leader among the young men. He leads over 1200 young men and boys for an astounding 18 month trek to refugee camps in Kenya.

Eleven year old Nya’s story is dovetailed with Salva’s even though her story begins in 2003. Nya’s life is defined by water in the same way Salva’s is defined by war. The need for water consumes her life as she travels hours everyday collecting and carrying water for her family. The latter Sudan is suffering from the lengthy civil war, political unrest, poverty and drought. Subsistence people spend their time and energy trying to procure food and water. School and gainful employment are like a distant dream: Out of reach and too rare to hope for.

Although Salva and Nya’s lives are over twenty years separated, there are a lot of similarities, the least of which is not tribal rivalry and violence. Salva and Nya are tied together as children of Sudan, and their lives are destined to cross paths in an encouraging and inspiring way. I’ll let you discover that as you read the book.


Salva’s life is particularly heart rending. He loses a rare friend to a lion kill and he is very fearful after this. The lion attack is not described in detail. Pg 37

Salva witnesses the death of his uncle at the hands of rebel soldiers of a rival tribe. The incident is not graphically portrayed.  Pg 63

In the forced crossing of the Gila River, Salva witnesses refugees being shot and eaten by crocodiles. It is a disturbing account. Park does not exploit these events, but handles them with care and respect. Pg 77

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