Sunday, February 03, 2013

Weaving Currents

In A Long Walk to Water, Linda Sue Park uses two narrative threads—the story of Salva fleeing his village in war-torn Sudan and the story of Nya, years later, making daily trips to a pond to fetch water for her family—to craft a compelling story about survival and hope.

Based on the childhood experiences of Salva Dut, one of the thousands of Lost Boys of Sudan, Park tells two separate stories side-by-side, and, as a reader, we turn the pages hoping and wondering how the two stories will eventually converge.

In addition to the basic questions about whether the main characters will survive, what compels us to keep turning pages are questions about the structure of this novel. How will the two stories meet? When will they converge? And why did the author choose this particular device to tell her story about Nya and Salva?

The alternating sequence begins in the Southern Sudan in 2008: 
Going was easy.
Going, the big plastic container held only air. Tall for her eleven years, Nya could switch the handle from one hand to the other, swing the container by her side, or cradle it in both arms. She could even drag it behind her, bumping it against the ground and raising a tiny cloud of dust with each step.
There was little weight, going. There was only heat, the sun already baking the air, even though it was long before noon. It would take her half the morning if she didn’t stop on the way.
Heat. Time. And thorns.
And then Park switches to Southern Sudan, 1985: 
Salva sat cross-legged on the bench. He kept his head turned toward the front, hands folded, back perfectly straight. Everything about him was paying attention to the teacher—everything except his head and mind.
His eyes kept flicking toward the window, through which he could see the road. The road home. Just a little while longer—a few minutes more—and he would be walking on that road. 
Park gives her reader a sense of place and time almost immediately, not merely with the heading “Southern Sudan, 2008,” but with her description of Nya’s daily trek for water.

The same is true for the picture she presents of Salva, though the details appear a few paragraphs into his story: 
He and his brothers, along with the sons of his father’s other wives, would walk with the herds to the water holes, where there was good grazing. Their responsibilities depended on how old they were. Salva’s younger brother, Kuol, was taking care of just one cow; like his brothers before him, he would be in charge of more cows every year. Before Salva had begun going to school, he had helped look after the entire herd, and his younger brother as well. 
From each of these excerpts (and from the book’s title), a reader begins to understand that water is crucial to life in Sudan.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, water becomes the link between these two stories and these two characters.

If you’d like to study how an author weaves together two stories into one, take a look at A Long Walk To Water, a novel that you’ll find expertly crafted from two distinct strands into one.

For more info on Linda Sue Park, visit her website:

For more info on A Long Walk to Water, take a look at:


Dianne Ochiltree said...

Thanks for such a thoughtful commentary on how a contemporary master writer weaves narrative threads together seamlessly.

Bruce Black said...

Dianne, it's always a treat to read Linda Sue Park's work. If you're working with two story lines--A and B, say--her book might provide some helpful insights into how and when to switch from A to B and B to A. Thanks for your note.