Monday, May 31, 2010

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier ~ An Eye-Opening Book Despite Credibility Issues

Motivation for reading:  I decided to read Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier after reading Simon Mac Donald's review in which he rated it a solid buy saying it will bring you tears on more than one occasion.

What is it about?
Ishmael Beah was recruited into the Sierra Leone Army when he was only 13; he didn’t really have a choice. His village had been attacked by rebels during the civil war separating him from his parents. He was forced to wander from village to village first with his brother and friends, then by himself and ultimately with another group of boys in search of food and news of his family. When he and the other boys came upon a village controlled by the army they thought they had found a safe haven, but were soon reminded the RUF rebels had killed their families and destroyed their villages. They were given an ultimatum:

“That is why we need strong men and boys to help us fight these guys, so that we can keep this village safe. If you do not want to fight or help, that is fine. But you will not have rations and will not stay in this village” (pg 106).

Once he became a soldier, he was taught to be a cold blooded killer assisted by an unlimited supply of marijuana, cocaine and other drugs numbing him to the violence. After two years, at age 15, he was released to UNICEF and rehabilitated.

Why read this book?
This book convinced me not only do I need to be a feminist, but a humanist as well. According to UNICEF, an estimated 300,000 child soldiers - boys and girls under the age of 18 - are involved in more than 30 conflicts worldwide. Child soldiers are used as combatants, messengers, porters, cooks and to provide sexual services. Some are forcibly recruited or abducted; others are driven to join by poverty, abuse and discrimination, or to seek revenge for violence enacted against themselves and their families.

For me, one of the most powerful quotes from the book comes from a speech Ishmael made at a conference in NYC:

“What I have learned from my experience is that revenge is not good. I joined the army to avenge the deaths of my family and to survive, but I’ve come to learn that if I am going to take revenge, in the process I will kill another person whose family will want revenge; then revenge and revenge will never come to an end . . .” (pg 199).

My only complaint is that the book ended too abruptly. I would have enjoyed reading more about how Ishmael got out of Guinea and what his life was like once he moved to New York City. Perhaps he will write a sequel.

Follow up:
To keep my reviews original, I try not to read additional book reviews after I’ve made a decision to read a particular book. Upon completing my review of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, I learned there is speculation that Ishmael Beah fabricated his story. You can read about the allegations here and his response here. These allegations seem plausible, at times while reading the book I did wonder if the events weren't exaggerated, but it also reminds me of childhood stories my siblings (I have five) and I share with each other, depending on who is telling the story, the date of occurrence, the people involved and even the motive behind the story can differ. So could a young boy, brain-washed by the military, pumped up on drugs get a few details wrong – absolutely.

Do I regret reading the book?
No, but if I had known about the allegations up-front I probably would have read David Egger's What Is the What, a novel based on the real life experiences of a young refugee in southern Sudan, instead.


  1. Even if it is fabricated, the incredibly inhumane, awful acts that are still occurring in the Sudan need to be made more public. It's way too easy to just ignore the news reports and forget what's happening on the other side of the world.

    Humanist? yes!

  2. I haven't read the book, but I bet your idea that there is some exaggeration based on age is probably a sound one. It's too bad there's some questions about it -- sometimes I think a memoir that gets questioned is even worse than if the book were just labeled as fiction anyway.

  3. Webb,
    Thanks for the comment. I plan on reading additional "Humanist" books in the coming months. If you have any suggestions let me know.

  4. Kim,
    I agree it is much worse to write a memoir that is questioned than writing a book labeled fiction. Also, Beah came from a long line of storytellers, so part of the problem for him could be that the "story" is more important than the facts.