Saturday, January 12, 2008

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

A Long Way Gone was the latest read for my bookclub. It is also on my TBR Challenge list for 2008. I really had other (lighter) reading in mind to start out my new year with, but decided to go ahead and read this one. I'm glad I did. We read What is the What by Dave Eggers last year, and this book has similar themes -- the effect of war on children, the struggle to survive and retain some semblance of human decency, etc. As I mentioned in my review of What is the What, without reading books such as these I might remain safely ignorant of the devastating events in countries like Sudan and Sierra Leone. Sure, I'll come across news items about happenings in these countries (and others like them), but these news items will allow me to keep my distance. A Long Way Gone puts an individual face to the horrific events in Sierra Leone. A child's face no less.

A Long Way Gone is Ishmael's story of life both before the war, during the war, and his escape from the war. Before the war he lead the life of a boy doing those things that young boys do: hang out with friends, go to school, perform hip-hop dance routines at talent shows. His life wasn't without trouble though. His family was broken, his step-mother drove a wedge between him and his father, his mother lived in another village, his father quit paying for his schooling; but these things, while distressing, were tame compared to what his life became when war between the rebels and the government came to his village. Ishmael's life became one of running and hiding, dodging gunfire, starvation, and avoidance of both the rebels and the government soldiers. To fall into the hands of either side meant death or conscription into the brutal world of drugs, violence and killing; these were the only choices. The subtitle gives away the fact that Ishmael did indeed "join" the fighting and became a boy soldier. He was conscripted into the kill-or-be-killed-drug-ridden hell that he had so desperately been trying to avoid.

Three things in particular stand out to me in this book. The first, and most obvious, is the meaning of the book's title, A Long Way Gone. Simply put, war took away and placed at a great distance Ishmael's childhood, innocence, and home and family. I'm sure this modest list can be expanded, but these are the most obvious losses. Ishmael was a boy ... a child ... who became a soldier. He was twelve. His childhood and his innocence were taken from him ... never to be returned. His life became a drug induced haze filled with blood soaked killing sprees. Village life with family, friends, school, and hip-hop talent shows was truly a long way gone.

A second thing that caught my attention was the juxtaposition between the way boys were seen as soldiers and soldiers were seen as boys. Children ran in gangs trying to find safe haven and avoid the rebels and soldiers who would turn them into killers. Villagers saw these gangs of boys and feared them; the boys were run off or killed. The villagers took no chances. Though these boys were mere children they were viewed and treated as soldiers. Many of these boys did indeed become soldiers and were taught to kill or be killed. Some of them were eventually rescued and taken, by relief workers, to the city for rehabilitation. The relief workers viewed these drug addled soldiers as children that would welcome rescue and were unprepared for the violence that they brought with them. Childhood and innocence were "a long way gone" from these boy soldiers.

Thirdly is the storytelling element. Ishmael was chosen to attend a conference at the U.N. about issues affecting children around the world. He was chosen to tell the story of the children of Sierra Leone. While at the conference, Ishmael met a storyteller named Laura who travels the world gathering and telling stories. Ishmael was drawn to her and to the idea of storytelling. Of course, A Long Way Gone is a story. It is the story of war torn Sierra Leone. It is a story of violence and hope. It is Ishmael's story.

I would have liked the author to include more about his journey from Guinea to New York and think that the story ended rather abruptly. I feel that the author is still working on his craft and learning to put his stories into writing, but this does not detract from the book. I highly recommend this book as a way to put a personal face to the tragic plight of children in war torn countries. It deserves a prominent place in the literature of history and social conditions.

Also reviewed at:
Trish's Reading Nook


  1. I have this one on my TBR shelf. I added it during my African phase last year, but was unable to get to it then. Maybe this year. It's such a frightening life--a sad one. Great review, by the way!

  2. I've heard of this book, but haven't read it gives me shivers!

    Hey, I used that same iceberg photo in a training I did!

    Thanks for your comment today...its nice to "meet" you. :)

  3. I posted a link in a comment on my blog as well, Terri, but just in case you don't check back, I thought I'd leave it here too. Wendy (Caribousmom) has a blog called A Novel Challenge, which offers a listing of all the reading challenges out there that she's aware of. I don't believe I've seen one for professional books, but you might visit the site to see just in case. Hope that helps!