A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier – Ishmael Beah

A Long Way Gone

Howdy! I’m not even going to try to come up with an excuse for why it’s been so long since I’ve written, I don’t have any. I just haven’t written in a while. But I am now!

I’ve been on a book buying binge lately, my latest purchases include: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Hollow City, The Lies of Locke Lamora, Republic of Thieves, MAUS 1 and 2, both issues of the Firefly comic, Eleanor and Park, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Scorch Trials, The Kill Order, Speaker For the Dead, The Silmarillion, and Selected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. So that’s a lot, but I’m all set for summer!

Okay so I read A Long Way Gone in grade 12, and I was impacted by it then. Four years later I reread it and let me tell you, this is one of the most heartbreaking books I’ve ever read. The author, Ishmael Beah, is an ex-child soldier who was rehabilitated as a teen and moved to America as a young man. He now works with children who were child soldiers or who were affected by war in their home countries. That’s pretty inspiring in itself. He is also an incredible writer.

Beah grew up in Sierra Leone, the child of divorced parents with an older and younger brother. He and his older brother were walking to another town with a group of friends to perform a hip hop concert, when the rebels came and destroyed his town. Refugees started pouring in to the town he was visiting, but his family couldn’t be found. The boys ended up on the run, travelled for days and weeks, and eventually came upon a man from their village that told them where Beah’s family was staying. Just before they got to the village where they would find their family, the rebels came and destroyed it. Their family was murdered, and Ishmael was filled with despair. He was so close to seeing his family again, so hopeful. It was terrible.

He later is separated from his friends, and travels on his own for a while doing anything he can to survive. At one point he has to fend off a pack of wild hogs. He doesn’t know where to go, who he can trust, what choices to make.

“Who can ever know what path to walk on when all of them are either crooked or broken? One just has to walk.”

Eventually he comes across another group of boys about his age, and they roam the wild together. However, as a group of teenage boys travelling together, they pose a threat to villages who are as yet untouched by the war. Several times, the boys are only saved by Ishmael’s cassette tapes of hip hop music he carries in his pockets. Run DMC kept the boys from being killed, as Ishmael’s rap and dancing made the strangers realize that he was just a boy, his friends were just boys and posed no threat to the villagers. One of lines in the book that has stuck with me from the first time I read the book is something along the lines of “We tried all 17 languages we collectively knew, and these men didn’t speak any of them.” The only thing that saved the boys in this situation was Ishmael’s tapes. I think this stayed with me for so long because it really illustrated the diversity of Africa. Between them, this group of 7 or so boys knew 17 languages. And this is just in one country, never mind all of Africa.

Eventually the boys are caught by government soldiers and are given the choice to join the army or leave the town they are taking refuge in. The boys join the army, and are turned into angry drug addicted killing machines, fueled by rage and cocaine induced highs.

“My squad is my family, my gun is my provider, and protector, and my rule is to kill or be killed.”

Ishmael no longer knows anything but gunshots and blood.

Eventually he is rescued by a support worker who takes him to a home set up to rehabilitate child soldiers. The home has both government and rebel soldiers under the same roof, and anarchy consistently breaks out between the two factions. Reading about these young boys killing each other just for being captured by the wrong guys, to know that even though they have been removed from the fighting and the violence they still see themselves as soldiers. To know that this still happens, children are still being used as soldiers, killed “in the line of duty”, it’s disgusting.

Ishmael makes some new friends at the rehab house, including a very kind, compassionate young nurse who seems to know exactly what he needs. Eventually his estranged uncle find him and takes him home to his family. Ishmael is happy here, and is invited to attend a conference at the UN in New York for children from war-torn areas. He returns to a short period of happiness with his uncle and his family, but eventually the war catches up with him. Beah decides to flee the country, knowing that if he was caught up in the war again he would end up fighting, and he couldn’t face that. He escapes to a neighbouring country and ends up moving to New York to live with a woman he had become friends with in New York who he eventually comes to consider his mother. The story of his escape, his eventual triumph as he accepts his history and thrives in his present, it is breathtaking. As Beah says, “…children have the resilience to outlive their sufferings, if given a chance.” He is living proof that children have the extraordinary ability to succeed against all odds.

I have read quite a few memoirs and autobiographies and the like, and I have never read anything like this. A Long Way Gone is a must read for those of us looking for an uplifting story about success, triumph, beating the odds, and finding happiness even after great tragedy. It is definitely a reality check to compare Beah’s story to my own, the ease with which I have lived my life. I’ve never been able to forget A Long Way Gone, and I don’t think I ever will.





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2 responses to “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier – Ishmael Beah

  1. I also really loved this book. I had known a little bit about child soldiers, but this book really opened my eyes. He has a new work of fiction that just came out not too long ago! It’s on my to-read list!

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