Date finished: March 26, 2012
How I found this book: I had heard about this book previously and on some level I wanted to read it, but given the difficult nature of the subject matter I always avoided it. I knew when I started this book-from-every-country project though that this was the book I wanted to read for Sierra Leone.
A Long Way Gone is the autobiographical story of a boy in Sierra Leone who is displaced by civil war. It is a powerful book and as I anticipated it can be difficult to read despite its matter of fact manner of writing. Ishmael’s village is destroyed by the rebel army in the Sierra Leone Civil War and he is separated from most of his family. He travels, sometimes with other boys and sometimes alone, from village to village, scavenging for food, trying to stay out of the hands of the rebel soldiers and seeking safer territory. Eventually, however, Ishmael and his friends are pressed into the government army. He describes how the drugs and the training he received made him numb and even happy to kill. They would be watching a movie in the barracks when the order would come to go out and attack a village. After some hours of fighting, often killing innocent people, they would return and simply finish the movie which had been paused in their absence.
One thing that stands out is the kindness Ishmael receives from strangers in the midst of a violence and chaos. Unknown boys constituted a threat in Sierra Leone because so many child soldiers had been recruited by both the government and rebel armies. As a result, when the boys (in their wandering and scavenging phase) encountered other people, they were generally met with suspicion, if not outright hostility. And yet, many people took the risk of giving them food and shelter. Would I have been as generous? I am sad to have to admit to myself that, given the real risk associated with such generosity, I probably would not have been so generous.
I was also impressed by the persistence of workers at the rehabilitation center for former child soldiers where Ishmael later ended up. Perhaps it seems obvious, but somehow I hadn’t anticipated that children who were forced into the army against their will would still be traumatized to be removed from the army and the degree to which they would retain aggressive and violent attitudes. At the rehabilitation center, the boys were going through withdrawal from all the drugs that they had been given to encourage them to fight and they acted out their anger against the staff. Yet somehow the staff had the patience to accept their behavior and simply tell them repeatedly “It’s not your fault”.
Unfortunately I’ve learned that there is some controversy over the accuracy of some parts of the book. From what I’ve read, there do seem to be valid doubts about certain aspects, in particular the length of time that Ishmael Beah was actually a child soldier. (The Village Voice has a good overview of the controversy. http://www.villagevoice.com/2008-03-18/news/boy-soldier/full) There are a lot of understandable reasons why he might have exaggerated or confused his story so I don’t want to pass judgement about it. It does make me sad though. The book would still be very powerful, even if he was a soldier for “only” a few months rather than two years, but the suspicion of such a major inaccuracy detracts from the book, at least for me.