Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 55.
- Review Date: 2006-12-18
- Reviewer: Staff
This absorbing account by a young man who, as a boy of 12, gets swept up in Sierra Leone's civil war goes beyond even the best journalistic efforts in revealing the life and mind of a child abducted into the horrors of warfare. Beah's harrowing journey transforms him overnight from a child enthralled by American hip-hop music and dance to an internal refugee bereft of family, wandering from village to village in a country grown deeply divided by the indiscriminate atrocities of unruly, sociopathic rebel and army forces. Beah then finds himself in the army—in a drug-filled life of casual mass slaughter that lasts until he is 15, when he's brought to a rehabilitation center sponsored by UNICEF and partnering NGOs. The process marks out Beah as a gifted spokesman for the center's work after his "repatriation" to civilian life in the capital, where he lives with his family and a distant uncle. When the war finally engulfs the capital, it sends 17-year-old Beah fleeing again, this time to the U.S., where he now lives. (Beah graduated from Oberlin College in 2004.) Told in clear, accessible language by a young writer with a gifted literary voice, this memoir seems destined to become a classic firsthand account of war and the ongoing plight of child soldiers in conflicts worldwide. (Feb.)
Soldier, refugee, survivor
At 12, Ishmael Beah was a bit of a naughty boy. He didn't bother to tell anyone where he was going when he, his older brother and a friend set off to walk from their village in Sierra Leone to rap and dance in a talent show 16 miles away. He thought there was no need, because they'd be back soon. Rebel troops chose that day in 1993 to attack his village, burning the houses and slaughtering or driving off the inhabitants. Ishmael never saw his family again. When he was 13, the Sierra Leone government army press-ganged him into a unit of boy soldiers to fight the rebels. By 15, he was a hardened cutthroat, too drugged and traumatized to feel any pity when he killed.
Beah did ultimately escape that life, through luck and cleverness. Now a 25-year-old American college graduate, he has written A Long Way Gone, a memoir of exceptional power. Beah doesn't bother much with the convoluted politics behind the civil war that seems now finally to have ended, though he does include a helpful chronology at the end of the book. This is his deeply personal story. In vivid detail, he takes us inside the mind of the boy he was: frightened, depressed, hungry, helpless, alone.
When the little boy is first handed an AK-47, he is terrified of it. His superior officers, including a lieutenant who quotes Shakespeare, make the boys into killing machines by feeding them drugs and playing on their desire to avenge families massacred by rebels. Beah's own psychological turning point comes when two friends are killed while fighting beside him. After that, he has no trouble pulling his trigger.
Even after he has the good fortune to be turned over to a United Nations rehabilitation program, Beah's shell shock doesn't end. Weeks of monstrous behavior is followed by years of migraines, flashbacks and crippling survivor's guilt. The recovered Beah now works with Human Rights Watch and speaks out for children's rights. A Long Way Gone is compelling evidence for that cause.
Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.