four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
28-May-June-2007
By: 
Ishmael Beah
user_rating: 
0

Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

A-A Long Way GoneIn the west African nation of Sierra Leone, poverty overwhelms a large percentage of the population, and the civil war between the government and the rebel factions led to merciless violence between 1991 and 2002. Conscripted by the government, Ishmael Beah was caught up in the violence during the early 1990s and became a 13-year-old killer using arson, an AK-47, and his own hands. Beah’s commanders fed him cocaine mixed with gunpowder, showed him Hollywood combat films, and exploited him mercilessly, keeping him alive only to target enemy forces. Improbably, UNICEF members removed Beah from the violence in 1997, and, after rehabilitation, he immigrated to the United States, where he graduated from Oberlin College in 2004 and is now a UN spokesman.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 229 pages. $22. ISBN: 0374105235

Washington Post 5 of 5 Stars
"Everyone in the world should read this book. Not just because it contains an amazing story, or because it’s our moral, bleeding-heart duty, or because it’s clearly written. We should read it to learn about the world and about what it means to be human." Carolyn See

Oregonian 4.5 of 5 Stars
"That Beah survived at all, let alone survived with any capacity for hope and joy at all, is stunning and testament to incredible courage. … That Beah could then craft a memoir like this, in his second language no less, is astounding and even thrilling, for A Long Way Gone is a taut prose arrow against the twisted lies of war." Brian Doyle

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"From this vivid pocket of Dante’s hell, Ishmael emerges slowly, shedding his drug addiction but not his memories. … Every reader of A Long Way Gone will be appalled and grateful." Karen Long

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"In place of a text that has every right to be a diatribe against Sierra Leone, globalization or even himself, Beah has produced a book of such self-effacing humanity that refugees, political fronts and even death squads resolve themselves back into the faces of mothers, fathers and siblings. A Long Way Gone transports us into the lives of thousands of children whose lives have been altered by war, and it does so with a genuine and disarmingly emotional force." Richard Thompson

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"The Sierra Leone landscape Beah vividly describes is pockmarked by abandoned villages and strewn with corpses, as nightmarish as a Hieronymus Bosch painting come horribly to life. … Those seeking to understand the human consequences of war, its brutal and brutalizing costs, would be wise to reflect on Ishmael Beah’s story." Chuck Leddy

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Beah writes to recount, not to relive the ghastly memories, or to shock or guilt-trip his readers. His language is simple and his tone somewhat detached, as though to delimit the frightening reach of that world. Often, he relies on the distanced perspective of a storyteller." Carol Huang

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The horror is duly registered, but its vagueness and generality don’t add up to moments of lived personal history. … However, perhaps this gives us a clue to the nature and effect of these terrifying African conflicts." William Boyd

Critical Summary

A book about child soldiers killing others during wartime is bound to have a powerful effect. Whether A Long Way Gone is moving in a fulfilling way, given the rescue of the author by the UN, or appalling in its cruelty will depend on the individual reader. The graphic violence will bother some readers, and remorse is not Ishmael Beah’s strong suit. But the miracle remains: a teenager can be plucked from such an awful existence, transported to another nation, obtain a college degree, give literary voice to his horrific experiences—and teach us all something about humanity. That lesson is both light and dark, for as Carolyn See concludes, the book "says something about human nature that we try, most of the time, to ignore. Humans can be murderous, and that doesn’t pertain in any way to religion or politics or ideology."