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Book Review: A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah

I�m not sure I really got the title of A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah. Perhaps the structure is the problem. If I move the words around to say �Gone a Long Way� well, that makes a whole lot more sense, but is perhaps a little less dramatic or sales-effective. Either way, Beah certainly came a very long way.

The memoir is Beah�s picture perfect remembering of his childhood in Sierra Leone. Born in the same year I was, while I was stressing over pimples and looking down girl�s shirts, Beah was a soldier in the Sierra Leone army. (For the geographically challenged Sierra Leone is on the western side of Africa near the more famous Liberia.) It�s frightening to think that here but by the grace of God go I. Beah has written in a very detached tone of how his childhood was stripped away from him.

In the 1980�s the RUF, a rebel movement, sought to overthrow the Sierra Leone government, much of the fighting took place in the southwest part of the country. Beah and his older brother, at the outbreak of hostilities, were away from his family at a rap and dance competition. Separated from their family, they did what they could to survivie and move away from the fighting. Eventually getting seperated, never to see one another again, Beah survives by being drafted into the government�s army, eventually coming to Freetown as part of a non-profits� attempt to remove children from the war and rehabilitate them.

Beah�s story is dreadful. Although the writing can be difficult to read due to its matter of fact recitation of facts with little emotional context, it is worth the effort. I think in part the writing lacks emotion because of Beah�s experiences. If he were not to remain detached, the old angers would surface, and the animal nature takes control again. The story of his time as a child soldier is really sandwiched between the story of his childhood and early attempts at survival, and his rehabilitation. Beah rarely discusses some of the horrible things he did as a soldier, but when he does they are horrible enough to make you wonder at what more grievous atrocities he fails to mention.

Beah is sympathetic to the reader of his memoir even so. No one would like to have been him, not have their child become like him. His story is one of redemption from the very pits of Hades into the glow of civilization and responsible government. His story is, however being played out all over the world as both rebel movements and the governments they fight recruit younger and younger soldiers.

The flaw with the book is not really in Beah�s writing, but more in the marketing side. Although the subtitle claims it to be a “memoir of a boy soldier”, it spends too little time on his memories as a soldier and much more on his time before and after those experiences. In truth, it would have been better billed as the memoirs of lost childhood and a return from instinct into reason than otherwise. Still, for all that, he does remember some of his years of soldiering, and it is enough to make the reader gasp at the depth of sin in this world.

Additionally, their was not enough history of Sierra Leone and the conflict included. A timeline was provided, but, perhaps in an attempt not to pass judgment or choose one side over another, little is told of the origins of the RUF or the country itself. That disconnect made it hard fro me as a reader to understand the book. The lack of a description of the political background seemed a detriment to me.

Anyone who loves Africa, or anyone who wants to know more about the destruction child soldiering can cause should read this book. It is stark in its reality and in the destruction to the psyche that war can cause, especially to impressionable young minds. I still can�t get over how when I was learning the rules of English grammar, Beah was shooting and killing people, just to survive in a man made hell. I am grateful for my situation now in more ways than I can count. Beah�s A Long Way Gone will change you as well.

For more on Sierra Leone from a personal perspective read: Live from Freetown or Sweet Sierra Leone

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