Donna's Reviews > A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah
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's review
Jan 09, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: memoir, expanding-horizons, sierra-leone
Read in January, 2008

** spoiler alert ** A powerful and ultimately very upsetting read, and a story that desperately needs to be told. A small part of me wants to believe that this can’t possibly be true; a much larger part of me knows that it is true, and is dreadfully afraid for the future of a human race that can produce men capable of such atrocities. Ishmael’s story begins in 1993 in Sierra Leone in the midst of civil and political chaos as a military coup, a deposed government, and a rebel force clash in efforts to gain control of the country. Beah does an amazing job of helping us to understand exactly what it is like to live, as children, in the midst of a violent and inhuman civil war.

Beah is not a particularly polished writer, but he is definitely a gifted storyteller. I was reminded of the days I spent in Malawi in 1997. In my mind’s eye, I could easily picture the author seated at a waning campfire on a brightly lit night in the distant savannahs of Africa, telling his story to an assembled enrapt group of villagers:

“ ‘We must strive to be like the moon.’ An old man in Kabati repeated this sentence often to people who walked past his house on their way to the river to fetch water, to hunt, to tap palm wine; and to their farms. I remember asking my grandmother what the old man meant. She explained that the adage served to remind people to always be on their best behaviour and to be good to others. She said that people complain when there is too much sun and it gets unbearably hot, and also when it rains too much or when it is cold. But, she said, no one grumbles when the moon shines. Everyone becomes happy and appreciates the moon in their own special way. Children watch their shadows and play in its light, people gather at the square to tell stories and dance through the night. A lot of happy things happen when the moon shines. These are some of the reasons why we should want to be like the moon.” [p. 16]

* * * * *

W A R N I N G - - - S P O I L E R S

Ishmael’s family is killed, and he finds himself living alone in the jungle, gathering what food he can, making do with what he can find. He is only 12 years old. But he is discovered by the rebel fighters, trained to fight, and brainwashed into a daily round of weapons, killing, mind-altering drugs, and continuous exposure to levels of violence that you and I cannot possibly imagine. In the process he begins a descent into madness that feels very much like the loss of anything resembling humanity, or indeed reality:

“I am pushing a rusty wheelbarrow in a town where the air smells of blood and burnt flesh. The breeze brings the faint cries of those whose last breaths are leaving their mangled bodies. I walk past them. Their arms and legs are missing; their intestines spill out through the bullet holes in their stomachs; brain matter comes out of their noses and ears. The flies are so excited and intoxicated that they fall on the pools of blood and die. The eyes of the nearly dead are redder than the blood that comes out of them, and it seems that their bones will tear through the skin of their taut faces at any minute….The wheelbarrow in front of me contains a dead body wrapped in white bedsheets. I do not know why I am taking this particular body to the cemetery.” [p. 18]

In a strangely twisted and disturbing way, the rebel force becomes his new family. He makes friends among the other boys, and is looked up to as a particularly fierce fighter. The commander calls him “The Snake” because he is small enough to hide in the shrubs and skilled enough to attack without warning and kill many without being discovered.

I fear for the future of postcolonial Africa, as rebel factions in so many countries continue to fight against democratic governments, and democratically elected governments continue to siphon off all of the wealth of their nations into offshore bank accounts while the people starve, suffer, and die.

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