Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water is a story about the lengths to which people will go in order to survive. The book is divided into two storylines, which remain separate until the final chapter (in fact, the final sentence). In the first storyline, set in Southern Sudan in 1985, an eleven–year-old boy named Salva Dut is forced to flee his village due to the outbreak of civil war. In the second storyline, set in 2008, a young Sudanese girl named Nya works hard to gather water for her family, often spending entire days walking to and from the nearest pond to collect the dirty water. The storylines offer two variations on the theme of survival: in each, extraordinarily difficult circumstances force children to fight for the most basic necessities of nourishment and safety.
Many of the most moving scenes in A Long Walk to Water revolve around the harsh truth that the concern for one’s own survival trumps almost everything else. In a recurring motif of Salva’s storyline, adults and other families refuse to give Salva food or protection, even though Salva is an innocent kid who has lost his parents and is in need of help. The adults reason that Salva is so small that he’ll slow down the entire group—a serious problem, considering that the group is trying to flee enemy soldiers as quickly as possible. At the most basic level, other people refuse to help Salva because they value their own survival more highly than that of others. Similarly, in Nya’s storyline, Nya is forced to spend her days fetching water from the pond—a physically demanding task that consumes almost all of her time and strength. No child should have to work as hard as Nya works. However, the difficult conditions of south Sudan (in particular, the almost total lack of drinkable water) force Nya and the rest of her family to sacrifice their comfort, since the alternative is to die of dehydration. Even though Nya is only a small child, she seems to understand the gravity of her family’s situation; as a result, she works hard to gather water. Here, and throughout A Long Water to Water, the necessity of surviving forces the characters to sacrifice their compassion, their happiness, and more.
But even as survival is of enormous importance to the Sudanese characters in the book, Park demonstrates that, at times, some things do trump survival. In various instances, characters risk their own survival in order to help others—usually because these other people are a part of their family, or share some kind of strong cultural bond. For instance, when a group of refugees eventually decides to take Salva with them, even though doing so will slow down the group, they offer a simple reason for their decision: Salva is Dinka, a member of the tribe to which they also belong. Along similar lines, Salva’s most important protector during the long march out of Sudan is his uncle, Jewiir. Jewiir repeatedly sacrifices his own safety, food, and energy to make sure that Salva stays safe. He makes impractical decisions in Salva’s interest—and does so without any hesitation—because Salva is a part of his family. Everyone wants to survive, A Long Walk to Water suggests, and yet, sometimes, people are willing to risk their own survival to help others out of of a sense of compassion or kinship.
Although A Long Walk to Water is a book for young adults, it poses some difficult questions about the nature of survival. At one point, Salva witnesses the adults he’s travelling with sacrifice a portion of their water supply—an action which seriously endangers their own lives—in order to save the lives of men who are dying of dehydration. Salva wonders if he would do what they had done, and risk his own survival to help other people. Interestingly, Salva never answers his own question, suggesting that many of the moral problems that he encounters in Sudan are too difficult for any easy answer. Nevertheless, A Long Walk to Water suggests that people who have been prosperous and fortunate do have an obligation to help less fortunate people survive. For instance, after being adopted by an American couple and growing up in New York, Salva founds a nonprofit organization with the mission of providing clean water for impoverished Sudanese villages. In this case, Salva isn’t sacrificing his survival in any way—rather, he’s making relatively small sacrifices in his own life (and encouraging donors to do the same) in order to make a big difference in the lives of countless Sudanese people. Ultimately, A Long Walk to Water has an altruistic message, championing the everyday efforts of those who do what they can to improve their corner of the world. Park isn’t asking readers to risk their lives for the sake of others’ survival, but she is asking that they use their resources to work together to improve the lives of people who struggle to survive.
Survival Quotes in A Long Walk to Water
Nya filled the container all the way to the top. Then she tied the gourd back in place and took the padded cloth doughnut from her pocket. The doughnut went on her head first, followed by the heavy container of water, which she would hold in place with one hand.
The tears were hot in Salva's eyes. Where had everyone gone? Why had they left without waking him?
He knew the answer: because he was a child . . . who might tire easily and slow them down, and complain about being hungry, and cause trouble somehow.
Nya nodded. She picked up the plastic container and took Akeer by the hand. Home for just long enough to eat, Nya would now make her second trip to the pond. To the pond and back—to the pond and back—nearly a full day of walking altogether. This was Nya’s daily routine seven months of the year.
The man nodded and turned to the group. "We will take him with us,” he said.
Salva looked up quickly. A few in the group were shaking their heads and grumbling.
The man shrugged. "He is Dinka” he said, and began walking again.
The boy was still looking at him. "Your family?" he asked.
Salva shook his head.
"Me, too,” the boy said. He sighed, and Salva heard that sigh all the way to his heart.
Their eyes met. "I'm Salva.”
It was good to make a friend.
As Salva spoke, Uncle nodded or shook his head. His face became very solemn when Salva told him that he had not seen nor heard a single word of his family in all that time. Salva's voice trailed of, and he lowered his head. He was glad to see Uncle again, but it looked as if he might not be much help either.
Uncle was quiet for a moment. Then he patted Salva’s shoulder. "Eh, Nephew!" he said in a cheerful voice. "We are together now, so I will look after you!"
A trip like that would be very difficult for Akeer. Should they stay at the camp and let her rest so she might heal on her own? Or should they begin the long hard walk—and hope they reached help in time?
The water from the holes in the lakebed could be collected only in tiny amounts. If her mother tried to boil such a small amount, the pot would be dry long before they could count to two hundred.
Salva looked at the hollow eyes and the cracked lips of the men lying on the hot sand, and his own mouth felt so dry that he nearly choked when he tried to swallow.
"If you give them your water, you will not have enough for yourself!" the same voice shouted. "It is useless-they will die, and you will die with them!"
Salva made up his mind. He would walk south, to Kenya. He did not know what he would find once he got there, but it seemed to be his best choice.
Crowds of other boys followed him. Nobody talked about it, but by the end of the first day Salva had become the leader of a group of about fifteen hundred boys. Some were as young as five years old.
Whatever food or water they found was shared equally among all of them. When the smaller boys grew too tired to walk, the older boys took turns carrying them on their backs.
There were times when some of the boys did not want to do their share of the work. Salva would talk to them, encourage them, coax and persuade them. Once in a while he had to speak sternly, or even shout. But he tried not to do this too often.
It was as if Salva's family were helping him, even though they were not there.
Salva stood still inside the terminal doors for a few moments. Leaving the airport felt like leaving his old life forever-Sudan, his village, his family. . . .
Tears came to his eyes, perhaps from the cold air blowing in through the open doors. His new family was already outside; they turned and looked back at him.
Salva blinked away the tears and took his first step into a new life in America.
Nya went back and picked up the plastic can. She felt as if she were flying. School! She would learn to read and write!
"I will come to the village,” Salva promised, “as soon as it is safe!”
“We will be there waiting for you,” his father promised in turn.
Salva pressed his face tightly to his father's as they hugged goodbye, their tears flowing and blending together.
Whenever he found himself losing hope, Salva would take a deep breath and think of his uncle’s words.
A step at as time.
One problem at a time—just figure out this one problem.
Day by day, solving one problem at a time, Salva moved toward his goal.
In a few more days, the school would be finished. Nya and Dep and Akeer would all go to school, along with the other children. Next year there would be a marketplace where the villagers could sell and buy vegetables and chickens and other goods. There was even talk of a clinic someday—a medical clinic, so they wouldn’t have to walk so far to get help, as they had to when Akeer was ill.