Book Twenty: A Long Way Gone

I heard the author of this book interviewed on NPR the other day, and it sounded interesting, so I added it to my order list at the library. I was actually surprised that it came so quickly, because usually when a book is featured on NPR, a bunch of people order it. I must have slipped in under the deluge of holds.

At any rate, A Long Way Gone is a book about being a child soldier.¬† Beah was forced into military service by the army in Sierra Leone (or an armed organization claiming to be the army), and he served for several years before being sent to a rehabilitation centre run by several NGOs. When war broke out again in Sierra Leone’s capital, he fled to the United States, taking shelter with a woman he had met at a UN conference in New York. Ultimately he went on to graduate from Oberlin, and to work with organizations which advocate for child welfare.

This book is really good. It is also really intense. Beah reports on very horrific events with¬† a matter of fact attitude, telling his story and letting the story speak for itself. I like that. A lot of memoirs are emotionally wrought, and his, while beautifully written, has been written without ornament. It is not designed to manipulate the emotions of the reader, because the contents are so awful that he doesn’t need to bother manipulating us.

A Long Way Gone reminded me of a penpal from Sierra Leone that a friend had in high school. In one of the last letters she got from him, he mentioned very casually that “my sister’s hands were cut off by the army yesterday,” and his next letter included a photograph of them, his sister stretched out on the straw with raw, bleeding stumps, and him kneeling beside her, grinning for his American penpal. I don’t think it occurred to him that in the United States, having your hands cut off by the army is a horrifying and momentous event, not the sort of thing one drops casually, like “I went to the store yesterday for some bread.” This is what happens when you become inured to awful things.

I read this book through in one sitting last night, first because I loved his vivid images of growing up in Sierra Leone as a youth, and then because I felt gripped by the story, and I had to read it to see what happened next. I don’t think I’m giving away too much of the story by saying that he was a boy soldier, considering that the book is subtitled “memoirs of a boy soldier,” but the story about how he arrived at that point, and the things that happened along the way, is heartbreaking. I’m not fond of using that word in book reviews, but there it is. I defy you to read this book and not be heartbroken.

Not so much because he was a child, although that is terrible, but because war in general is terrible. The events which he describe stretched the boundaries of credibility for me, as he constructed a world where ordinary citizens are afraid of groups of boys, where seven year olds pick up AK-47s, where any sort of peace and happiness is only temporary, as people wait for the other shoe to drop. I think that this book should be required reading for all high ranking individuals in government.


A Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Beah. Published 2007, 229 pages. Memoir.