Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Long Way Gone

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah
$12.10 at ISBN: 0374105235
Ishmael's exciting yet heart-breaking autobiography takes place in modern day Sierra Leone, a turbulent developing nation in western Africa. Constant fighting between military and political groups grappling for power have left the country impoverished, and roaming gangs kidnap boys starting around age ten, and recruit them into forced military service. They're branded, have their spirits broken, and are then given AK-47s and forced to fight. The depth of the violence and mistrust is horrifying, yet a few random acts of kindness show that the spirit of the native people still longs for peace. This is one of the hardest books I've read in a long time: in each chapter poor Ishmael's situation gets worse and worse. He's twelve when the story begins.
We find him first in his home town of Mogbwemo. He and some of his boyhood friends play wrestling games, swim in the nearby river, and listen to rap cassettes practicing their moves for an upcoming talent competition in a nearby town. Little do they know when they leave for the contest that they will never return home, or see their families again. Rebel armies move through Mogbwemo during their absence, killing everyone the boys ever knew. Ishmael and his friends run into hiding to avoid being captured or killed themselves.
The brutality of the armies is shocking: they burn a Muslim religious leader alive when he refuses to turn over the town's children. When he's separated from his friends, Ishmael goes into hiding in the forests for weeks, desperately lonely, threatened by snakes and other wild animals, and his only food is an unidentified yellow fruit he suspects might be poisonous. This all takes place withing the first 40 pages. What do American 12-year-olds experience that's anything like what this poor guy has to deal with? I'm 32 and don't know how he managed to survive it!
I'm not going to give the whole story away here. Ishmael does in time find himself recruited into a mercenary army, and fights for his life. Obviously he survived to write this book. Yet the horrors our friends in Africa have to deal with have never been painted so vividly. The author has a beautiful command of the English language. You'd have to be a robot not to be engrossed in this story, or moved by it. I just finished it myself this morning and feel a little shaken up. Whether you read the book or not, please say a prayer to whatever gods you believe in for the people of Sierra Leone. No child should ever have to endure what these kids did. Great work, Ishmael!

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