A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah

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A Long Way Gone is Ishmael Beah’s autobiographical retelling of his experiences as a child soldier in war-torn Sierra Leone in the mid-1990s.  As a child Ishmael lived a relatively happy and normal life with his family in Mogbwemo, a small west African village.  He attended school and was an excellent student.  He enjoyed American rap music and would choreograph dances and performances to the music of his favorite artists with his older brother and friends.  They played sports, hunted birds with slingshots, went to the movies in nearby Mattru Jong and watched curiously as refugees passed through with tales of war that seemed exaggerated at the time.

When Ishmael was twelve the rebel army (RUF) attacked Mattru Jong and surrounding villages.  Ishmael, his brother and their small group of friends escaped capture and traveled on foot looking for food and survivors.  Eventually, after spending a year on the run in the wilderness and without finding his family, Ishmael was picked up by the government army, given a gun and trained as a soldier.  After two years of fighting, at the age of fifteen, he was removed by UNICEF and taken to a rehabilitation center to begin the process of healing, detoxification and self-forgiveness.

The way the book is written is interesting:  Ishmael writes in first person while describing the time period that he was a refugee, and also the time in the rehabilitation center.  However, while writing about the two-year period that he was a soldier, he writes in a series of flashbacks and memories.  I wonder if he chose to write this way because he prefers to keep that time more distant from himself or because it really is harder for him to remember (the army kept their soldiers high on amphetamines and brown-brown, a mix of cocaine and gunpowder).  Whatever the reason, I appreciated it because some of his acts were so atrocious that the distance is necessary to see this person as someone who has been rehabilitated.  The reader is still made completely aware of the depth of horror, without it becoming gratuitously violent.  I’m really amazed that someone could go through what he did and then re-learn how to have a reverence for human life again…is that a trait of humanity in general, of the culture, of youth or of the individual?

Ishmael never found any surviving members of his immediate family.  In 1998 he escaped Sierra Leone and moved to the United States to live with a foster family.  He graduated from Oberlin College in 2004 and is a speaker and activist dedicated to helping former child soldiers reintegrate into society and improve their lives.

A Long Way Gone is one of those books that everyone should read.  It should be added to high school and college history classes that cover recent events (I’m sure some teachers and professors already require it) and it may even be a useful resource for psychology courses covering child psychology.  I highly recommend this book for all adults and teenagers.  The descriptions, details and metaphors are unique and emotionally stimulating.  This is an important story told by an honest and gifted narrator who has roots in a culture of storytellers.

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Published in: on May 27, 2009 at 5:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Featured Author — David Baldacci

David Baldacci is a lifelong Virginia resident who received his BA from VCU and his law degree from UVA.  He practiced law for nine years in the northern Virginia area before writing his first novel, Absolute Power, in 1996.  Since then, Baldacci has become one of the nation’s most prolific and successful novelists, having published 17 bestselling novels.

Baldacci is best known as a writer of political intrigue, but the first of his books that I read, Wish You Well, was an exception.  It is the story of a brother and sister, who, after experiencing a terrible tragedy with their family in New York in the 1940s, are sent to live with their grandmother on her farm in the mountains of southwest Virginia.  The story is poignant, humorous and charming and follows the young characters as they experience a coming of age in completely unfamiliar rural Virginia.  Their strength of character is revealed when faced with issues of drought, poverty, racism and environmental exploitation.  Baldacci’s mother and maternal grandmother were raised in the area, and it was the oral storytelling about their lives that provided him with the material for the novel.  Though the people and places are fictional, there are many specific references regarding day-to-day life in the region.  Those who have lived in the mountains will appreciate the familiarity.  This remains my favorite Baldacci book so far.

I then decided I should try some of his political suspense so I read Simple Genius, not realizing it is actually the third in a series.  I didn’t care for it, though perhaps if I’d read the previous books in the series I’d have been more familiar with the characters and they wouldn’t have seemed quite as flat.  But I also found the plot to be static and rushed.  The s0-called twists and surprises were unimaginative and lacked pizazz.  I don’t even feel like there was enough meat in the book to write a quick synopsis and since I dislike writing synopses anyway, I’ll skip it.

Luckily I didn’t let Simple Genius deter me.  I read The Camel Club, which is the first book in a separate series and really enjoyed it.  The difference between the two books is like night and day, almost as if they’d been written by two different people.  The Camel Club is the story of a group of eccentrics in Washington DC who gather regularly to discuss possible conspiracy theories and political corruption.  During one of their secret meetings they witness a murder at the hands of government officials and decide to take it upon themselves to uncover the details.  We’re also introduced to an aging secret service agent who is assigned to the case and members of a terrorist organization who are planning to attack the president and whose connection to the murderers is unclear.  The characters are so much fleshier and the plot significantly more intelligent and complex than in Simple Genius.  This is not usually a genre that I prefer, but I’ll probaby at least read the next book in this series.

In an effort to round out my Baldacci reading, I wanted to read his first novel, Absolute Power, since many say it is his best, and it was made into a movie starring Gene Hackman and Clint Eastwood (haven’t seen it yet…Baldacci himself says it’s VERY different from the book).  But I wasn’t able to get a copy of Absolute Power so I checked out The Christmas Train instead, since it appeared to deviate from the politial intrigue norm.  I enjoyed the book, but felt that it was more of a character study than a plot-propelling page turner.  The book is about a reporter heading to Los Angeles from Washington DC by train during the holiday season.  He hopes to write a book about the journey and meets all kinds of characters with stories to tell, including a retired priest, a fortune teller, a young eloping couple, a movie director and most surprising…his long, lost love.  The book was quaint… it was sweet…I don’t feel the urgent need to recommend it, but I’m glad I read it.

My husband and I had the chance to go see David Baldacci earlier this month.  He spoke at a local church and talked about what it was like to write his first novel, how he deals with being a celebrity, his typical writing methods and research processes and told a number of humorous anecdotes.  He’s an excellent speaker, very funny and answered questions from the audience.  He also spoke about the Wish You Well Foundation, an organization founded by Baldacci and his wife in an effort to increase family literacy.  There was a book signing afterwards but the line was very long and we were asked to please refrain from engaging him in coversation at all so that the signing could go as quickly as possible.  It was a reasonable request considering the size of the crowd, but if I wasn’t going to get to talk to the guy it wasn’t worth the wait, so we left.

Baldacci’s latest novel, First Family was released on April 21, 2009.