John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, reviews a book for young people. The New York Times described the book as “a modern masterpiece–as epic as the “Iliad” and “Shahnameh,” and as heartwarming as “Charlotte’s Web.” It’s for the kids act the lunch table; the heroes of tomorrow, just looking to survive the battle of adolescence.” John agrees.

He writes:

The first word on the cover of Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story) is untrue. In truth, the author’s first name isn’t Daniel. It was Khosrou, who was a king 1500 years ago. Nayeri’s parents were both professionals and they were descended from elites, but he became a refugee growing up poor in Edmond, Oklahoma. The acquired name of Daniel was less likely to prompt rejection, discomfort, and sadness.

The book’s first sentence is: “All Persians are liars and lying is a sin.  That’s what the kids in Mrs. Miller’s class think.” But Daniel’s dad, Massoud, who also was a poet, says Persians are worse than liars because they’re poets, so they don’t know they’re liars. The truth about poets is, “They are just trying to remember their dreams.”

Daniel draws on 6,000 years of Persian memories and the Oklahoma culture of his childhood to make sense of his “last memories” of those he loved. He goes back and forth from the dreams of Iran and Oklahoma, weaving a historic tapestry, complete with the flaws that are purposely woven into Persian rugs.  

Many key themes come from 1,001 Nights, which is “not in true history, but in myth history.” The Persian king, Shahryar, marries a woman every night and executes her the next day until Scheherazade, a “finigonzon” (beautiful girl), learns to survive by telling incomplete stories each night and crafting a new one the next morning. She survives by never getting to a last memory.

The Oklahoma evils, exemplified by Brandon Goff, the bully who abused Daniel the most, aren’t as extreme. He suffers just as much when trying to bond with the beautiful and affluent Kelly J., and she cruelly reads the Valentines Day card he sent her to their classmates. But, Daniel is painfully aware of how his classmates just watch and remain silent, illustrating the evil of “all the stuff you’ve left undone.”

The children’s acculturation towards evilness is foreshadowed in their class lesson during the Iraq War. Jared S. “draws a bunch of fighter jets shooting arrows at monkeys on camels.” Daniel wants to tell about being three-years-old and being bombed by Saddam Hussein every night, but nobody listens. After trying to enlighten a classmate, he’s brushed off, “I-ran, I-rack “I’d kick em in the balls.”

Another theme comes from the tale of Mithridates, who knew he was targeted for poisoning. He gave himself nonlethal doses of poison, building immunity. Since he then drank the poison with his friends who plotted against him at a banquet, they were obligated to do the same in order to hide their lies, thus killing themselves. But Daniel drew another lesson; the lies you tell to survive, or fit in, come back as evil. We can all become like Mithridates whose “poisoned heart beat poisoned blood.”

As Daniel’s stories unfold, he explores differences in the way that common themes play out. He notes, “Oklahomans don’t poison each other except with canned green beans that have a vague medicine flavor.” He then gives hilarious descriptions of how processed food, especially sweets, fit into different social roles, especially at church potluck dinners.

His altered drawing of the Oklahoma map illustrates the best of its culture. It looks like a soup bowl that Christians use to feed strangers. In the other outline of the state, the Panhandle is the handle of an axe that chops down on others who are different.

A church potluck dinner degenerates after the clueless Daniel wore a Miami Dolphins cap in a group of Cowboy fans. He ends up in the Emergency Room after a fight over Oklahoma dreams he was oblivious about.

Being an A+ student makes it more difficult for Daniel, a mazloom or “a kicked puppy,” to fit in. He persists and becomes more skillful in navigating cultural complexities. He notes that “Oklahoma is the only state in the Union where it is legal to own an anti-sniper rifle” that shoots “bullets the size of milk cartons.” But he bonds with a wonderful librarian and his teacher. And trying to discuss Persian desserts can become confusing, so he deescalates by adding, “I also like Kit Kat.” He also picks up insights like, “One rule in Oklahoma is that if a grownie talks to you, speak like an Okie. If a finigonzon talks to you, be chill.”

Daniel, who was 8-years-old when he came to Oklahoma, adapts and his elementary and middle school experiences teach him insights, such as, “In Oklahoma, rich people have nice things. In Iran, rich people have nice spaces.” He also learns:

“Sometimes in a village in Iran, or Edmond, Oklahoma, a dog and a cat will have such a vicious fight that both of them are changed forever. … [They] make some kind of boundary and stick to their territory, so they can pretend they won a kingdom the size of half of a town, when they really lost a limb the size of the other half.”

During his typical day, Daniel would stay up to 4:00 am in order to miss the school bus that Brandon Goff road. He would be last in line for lunch, so he would be less likely to be seen as not having any money and get more food from the nice cafeteria lady. Even on a city bus, he learned to sit in the back after bullying left him with multiple bruises.

Daniel’s sister, Dina, was even smarter than he, and she was less likely to contort herself into being accepted. But, when they were in England, Dina tried so hard to fit in that she followed a kid’s instructions, put her finger in a door jamb, and had it chopped off.

Probably influenced by painkillers, Dina emerged from her room that night having found Jesus. Their mom, Sima, followed her lead. This almost cost Sima her life. Back in Iran, she was attending an underground church. Rather than name names under torture, she and the children escape to Dubai. Her ex-husband connected them with a sheik who seemed willing to rescue them. But he wanted Dina as his wife. The mom got them out of the situation by telling him that the child bride he wanted was a Christian. So, they found themselves homeless.

In a camp in Italy, Daniel became close to a wonderful Kurdish football player and mentor. After probing too deeply, he learned why Kurds were treated like half of a person. His friend had been gassed so badly by Saddam Hussein that he was half of a half of a person.  

Due to the efforts of Christians like Jim and Jean Dawson, who Daniel says exemplify the best of Oklahoma, the family makes it to Edmond. His mom was their hero, working multiple jobs, enduring abuse from her second husband. Daniel describes just a part of her workday:

She comes home and goes straight to the kitchen. I don’t mean that she comes home, goes to her room to change clothes, wanders into the bathroom, picks through the mail, and then finally arrives at the refrigerator. … She [goes] straight to the kitchen to cook dinner.

As he seeks to follow intertwined dreams, Daniel learns, “History is a weave of a rug.” He understands what some people want when he learns: “A god that listens is love. A god who speaks is law.”

He eventually understands:

“Love is empty without justice.

Justice is cruel without love.”

“God should be both.

If a god isn’t, that is no God.”

Daniel learns, “If you want a god who listens, maybe all you want is pity for losing your only friend, like Mr. Sheep Sheep.” (Mr. Sheep Sheep was Daniels beloved pet who he had to leave in Iran.) If you want a god who speaks, you may embrace authoritarianism.

The novel’s climax occurs when his dad visits from Iran. At first, when learning that his classmates were afraid that his father was another migrant without papers, the prospects of the encounter look dim. But, his father wins everyone over, even being baptized at the church where Daniel had been assaulted. For about the first time, a reader can hope for an unambiguous happy ending. When his dad brings them to Water World Rapids, optimism grows even further.

Maybe Daniel can free himself from the refugees’ cycle of “last memories” of loved ones and places they lose.

Daniel foreshadows disappointment, however, when he apologizes to readers, saying that maybe Persians are sinners; and he’s a “patchwork text;” who deserves to be hit all the time; and a liar who doesn’t deserve a welcome.

“Sorry I wasted your time.”

In the last page, Daniel’s family lands back in the Economy Lodge Motel, but now he is different, “I knew we would be whole one day.” “Maybe it would take a thousand years,” the seeker of true dreams concludes, “But we’d get there, little by little.”