My High School friends have begun to suspect I haven't told them the full story of my life.
"Why did you leave Sierra Leone?"
"Because there is a war."
"Did you witness some of the fighting"
"Everyone in the country did."
"You mean you saw people running around with guns and shooting each other?"
"Yes, all the time"
I smile a little.
"You should tell us about it sometime."
These are the opening words of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah, Multnomah County's Everybody Reads book for 2008. This is one of those books that people safe in the US should be obligated to read. Particularly anyone who's been griping about their comparatively comfortable & trouble free life (moi? non).
Plot: The story is pretty basic, although excruciatingly detailed. Beah and some school friends walk to another town one day, only to run right into the chaos of civil war fighting. When they return to their villiage their familes have fled as have the rest of their neighbors. The first section of the book details the children's attempt to avoid the fighting while wandering towards a safer area. The next section details Beah's conscription into the national army, his experiences fighting and killing rebels and villagers. Finally the book covers Beah's rescue & rehabillitation and eventual reintegration into society and family life.
Motto: All of those young lives betrayed...
Opinion: Personal reactions only, I had a nightmare about this book when I was only a few chapters in. The idea of the children (I believe they were only 10-11 when first separated from their families) wandering around in the jungle, cold tired, scared and hungry... so hungry... it's just intolerable for someone as warm, comfortable and well fed as I. As bad as I felt for the author and his friends, it only got worse from there.
Beah is unflinching in his descriptions of his experience in the army. In particular he talks about doing drugs and watching Rambo movies with fellow soldiers then reenacting the scenes in their next attack. He talks of looking a man in the eye before slitting his throat... he was not more than 15. It's intense. Honestly I considered not finishing the book. I set it down for a couple of days and really thought about if I could continue reading it. Ultimately I decided that I wanted to honor this boy's experience by finishing his memoir. If he could live through the experience, I could live through reading about it.
Fortunately shortly after I started reading again the story progressed to his rescue and rehabilitation in a UN sponsored center for boys. It's a long process, but eventually he begins to heal and reclaim a bit of his childhood. Extended family members are located and Beah is welcomed with open arms. At this point the author begins speaking on behalf of children affected by the war, and is chosen to represent Sierra Leone in a UN workshop on the state of children in the world in New York. He comes back home, and just when you think it's time to live happily ever after, the civil war reaches the city where he is now living, and the rebels overthrow the government. All is not completely lost...although the memoir is left somewhat open ended, he does escape Sierra Leone, and eventually returns to New York where he now lives.
For as important as I feel this book is, I don't think it was especially well written. It's detailed, but emotionally detached. That might be a defense mechanism for the author... I mean, he lived through these horrors and I can't imagine what it must be like to have to relive it in writing the book. I would recommend this book to anyone who would like to read more about the plight of child-soldiers around the world, but reader beware, it's graphic, it's disturbing and it's true.
I'll be going to the book club discussion Tuesday night and it should prove to be very interesting indeed.
As this book took a lot of effort to finish, the next book I'll be reading is Candy Freak by Steve Almond. I don't anticipate any nightmares from this one.