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A long way gone: memoirs of a boy soldier by Ishmael Beah
Douglas & McIntyre, 2007

Ishmael Beah was 12 when a rebel army invaded his village in Sierra Leone. He spent many months running and trying to stay ahead of the rebels who were ruthlessly destroying and killing everything in their path. Since many of the rebel soldiers were young boys, Ishmael and his companions were met with fear almost everywhere they went, and as a result had to survive on their own for months on end.

Less than a year after leaving his village on the run, Ishmael was picked up by the government army and pressed into service. Learning to eat an entire meal in under a minute was perhaps the least violent skill he learned at the camp, and fighting battles and invading villages under the influence of drugs soon became a way of life. A long way gone is a terrible, moving, and ultimately heartwarming tale of one boy's life as a child running from the rebels and fighting them in battle and, later, being rehabilitated.

A long way gone opens masterfully, with a brief anecdote about Ishmael Beah's U.S. high school classmates thinking it was cool how he had seen "people running around with guns and shooting each other." I've heard a similar sentiment expressed many times in the libraries I work in, especially from boys who are the same age as Beah was when he was running and fighting for his life. It is a testament to Beah that he could smile at his classmates' ignorance.

In fact, the whole book is a testament to Beah, although he does not glorify himself nor try to make himself appear any different from other boy soldiers: as a squad leader in the army, he commanded other boys and performed horrific acts himself and was certainly an active participant. He seems to attribute his rehabilitation as much to luck as anything else, and describes his painful recovery in frank terms. He objectively describes his fear, frustration, annoyance, anger, and joy throughout.

While the book is not gratuitously violent, there are definitely some graphic descriptions of village invasions, battles, and merciless revenge. It is my view that it is as tastefully done as was possible and I was always aware that for every horror described in the book, Beah likely experienced hundreds more.

Yes, this is a bleak book, but it is also a tale of the possibility of recovery for children who have lived through horrors that many of us cannot even imagine.

 


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