Sunday, March 18, 2007

A Long Way Gone (Ishmael Beah): a memoir that stays with you

The phrase “boy soldier” seems like an anachronism to an American. We know young boys were caught up in our own Revolutionary War and in the War Between the States. But those wars conjure another place and time long distant from the present.

Not so in many parts of the world today. Ishmael Beah recounts his journey to redemption in 'A Long Way Gone', beginning with the destruction of his village in Sierra Leone by rebel forces. The book opens with descriptions of his life in a village where many are employed by foreign companies but where families still cling to agrarian customs and practices. He plays soccer, he goes to collect firewood,he likes hip-hop but he still enjoys listening to elders tell time-honored fables about his culture. His parents parted when he was young; he lives with his father and stepmother. One day he leaves with several friends to take part in a talent show in a neighboring village. That day would be the end of normal life for the author.

Rebels assault Beah’s village; victims could choose life and support the rebels or risk death by fleeing. Beah describes the predicament:
“…the rebels began shooting their guns at people instead of shooting into the sky. They didn’t want people to abandon the town, because they needed to use civilians as a shield against the military. One of the main aims of the rebels when they took over a town was to force the civilians to stay with them, especially women and children. This way they could stay longer, as military intervention would be delayed.”

‘A Long Way Gone’ pulls the reader along as Beah becomes a child soldier, dependent on drugs, comrades and adrenalin to survive. He finds himself doing the very things that destroyed his own family—killing others as a product of being brainwashed by the government army that has conscripted him.

Beah’s journey from tormented soldier to accomplished Oberlin College graduate and New York writer plays like a video in the reader’s mind. The author witnessed and participated in horrible acts. That he made it out of a civil war alive and intact is a miracle.

There's a remarkable photo of the author on the back cover. He has a beautiful smile in his eyes and on his lips that despite all he's been through, suggests hope.

I’d highly recommend this memoir to any reader; it’s eloquent and memorable. It is a vivid reminder of the character of war, the assumption of pain by people who just want to live their lives but are unable to because political factions prize power over decency.

This is the second memoir I’ve read that really stays with me. I believe Ishmael Beah’s ‘A Long Way Gone’ and Jeannette Walls’s ‘The Glass Castle’ should be nominated for the National Book Award. We’ll see what happens.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mr Beah has fallen a long way since this review was written. The book is a work of fiction. Perhpas some readers will appreciate it as a good read, but it seriously misrepresents the facts. Investigations have revealed the dates, locations and events in the book came out of Beah's imagination. What a cad he is. We're waiting for him to show some honesty, but I feel he is just too interested in the financial gain he has realised for himself. So much for te child soldiers.