OUR REVIEWS

Washington Post

Three young Sudanese boys -- Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng and Benjamin Ajak -- tell their own story (with the help of Judy A. Bernstein) in They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys From Sudan (PublicAffairs, $25). This beautifully told volume is by far the strongest of the three books under review here; it will remain on my desk for years to come. In this tender and lyrical story, the world of some of Africa's most desperate children -- running away from war and toward life -- is vividly evoked. The authors escaped bombings and attacks on their villages and survived a sandstorm-swept trek to Ethiopia, only to be forced into a thousand-mile walk to the sweltering, overcrowded refugee camps on the Ethiopia-Kenya border. They were later picked as among the camps' brightest residents and resettled in San Diego by the International Rescue Committee, an American nonprofit group.

The idea to write this book came from Bernstein, a volunteer worker who was touched by news reports of some 20,000 Sudanese boys -- some as young as 5 --who were escaping rebel groups and government armies that wanted to force them to fight. These young refugees, known as "the lost boys," walked across deserts drinking their own urine, dodging hyenas, bitten and bloodied by termites and mosquitoes, and praying for worms for their dinner.

Bernstein -- who appears only in the introduction -- was dispatched to help Benson, Benjamin and Alepho navigate the confusing web of U.S. culture and bureaucracy. When she took them to a shabby Wal-Mart -- "a king's palace," Benson says, "reaching his arms toward the ceiling in reverential awe" -- their first request was for a few notebooks. The lost boys -- now young men -- soon began recording their ordeal.

The result is one of the most riveting stories ever told of African childhoods -- and a stirring tale of courage.

WashingtonPost.com by Emily Wax

Los Angeles Times

According to an African proverb, "When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled." Nothing validates this truth more than the experience of the Lost Boys of Sudan, the thousands of youths who have fled their villages during the long, ongoing Sudanese civil war.

Under the guidance of Judy Bernstein, volunteer mentor for the San Diego International Rescue Committee, Benson and Alephonsion Deng and their cousin Benjamin Ajak, all younger than 7 at the time their Dinka village was attacked, narrate their experiences in "They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky," a moving, beautifully written account, by turns raw and tender.

One can hardly imagine such an account being pleasurable to read, but when considered as a tribute to their character, it is compelling. In language elegant with understatement and metaphor, Benson speaks of "the wail and the woe" of crossing the wicked Gilo River, dodging gunfire and ferocious crocodiles. "Thousands of people flowed into the river and disappeared, like water poured into the sand of Sahara." And again, "War determined to fling us into the wind like moths…. I could feel the sorrow in the trees." Perhaps such imagery has its source in the oral traditions of their tribal life.

Their yearning for education was so keen that in a Kenyan refugee camp they chose rudimentary schooling over a chance to earn money for food. Although the experiences themselves deliver an indictment, the account is remarkably without condemnation or self-pity, and the boys exhibit an underlying innocence and purity. One aspect of the story in "They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky" remains for us to deduce: the effect of its telling on the three young men themselves. The tone of the ending suggests that while excruciating to relive it to write about it, the process has been if not healing, then at least therapeutic. One would hope.

LATimes.com by Susan Vreeland

Minnesota Star Tribune

Certainly these three have vital stories to tell that can help readers understand events in Sudan on a human level. But "They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky" is no mere historical document; it is a wise and sophisticated examination of the arbitrary cruelties and joys of being alive.

StarTribune.com by Cherie Parker

The New York Review of Books

Their accounts, written in lesson books and later transcribed to computers, have been skillfully put together in a narrative, each boy carrying both his own story and that of their joint flight and reunion forward. The result is both fascinating and immediate, not in the least because of the guilelessness of the language and the particularly African use of metaphor and imagery.

NYBooks.com by Caroline Moorehead

NPR Review

They walked nearly one thousand miles, sustained only by the sheer will to live. This book is the three boys' account of that unimaginable journey, the life-threatening ordeals endured by the authors and tens of thousands of other children escaping African civil war in the late 1980s, including near-starvation, illnesses, and massacres.

NPR Interview on Talk of the Nation

Hear Alephonsion Deng and Judy Bernstein, co-authors of They Poured Fire on Us.