Until he was 12, Ishmael Beah lived with his mother and brothers in Mattru Jong, Sierra Leone. Then the war came to his hometown with the arrival of the rebels and he was forced to flee for his life, losing his entire family in the process. Because he then proceeds to hang around with a group of boys, his friends, he is kicked out of towns, starved, and forced to run again and again until he is finally drafted into the army. Force fed drugs and given an AK-47, Ishmael is turned into a mini killing machine, hardly aware of what he’s doing, until he is chosen for a rehabilitation program and begins the slow process of re-acclimatizing into civilian life. Eventually, he becomes a spokesman against putting children in war, and has written his memoirs in a bid to stop this horrible practice.
This is a difficult book to read, not only because Beah’s childhood and teenage years are so horrific but because this drafting of children into warfare is something that still happens around the globe. Beah never wanted to be a soldier; he spends most of the book actually running away from them, while at the same time regularly condemned simply for his age. He and his friends nearly starve and are nearly killed a number of times by the very same forces they end up fighting for. Once they’re caught, there is simply no choice.
In terms of prose style, Beah’s book is plainly written but descriptive enough to get his point across; more and I think some of the things he describes would have been almost too graphic, even if they did happen. His time as a child soldier was easily the hardest to take. He describes how he was turned from a regular boy into a violence machine. The army used drugs and persuasion to make the children kill with a vengeance; these same acts make Beah’s rehabilitation all the more difficult when it does happen. One of the most heartbreaking parts of the book occurs when Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, is retaken by soldiers, and many of the rehabilitated children wind up back in the army. Beah is saved this fate and indeed turns out incredibly fortunate as he finds a new life in the United States, but he doesn’t fail to remind us that his case is unusual and is the very reason he can write his book.
Personally, I knew very little about child soldiers before reading this book, and I’ve been reminded once again how fortunate I am to have grown up in a peaceful society. I never had to worry that a gang of rebel soldiers was going to invade my town, evict me from my home, and kill everyone I’d ever known. Beah did, and these things are still happening around the world. This is one of those books that I believe everyone should read; it’s important to know what’s going on in the world and to find out ways we can help. I can’t recommend A Long Way Gone enough.
I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.