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

A_Long_Way_Gone

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.

Published in: on May 27, 2009 at 5:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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