A Long Way Gone


The link in the subject line will take you to a BBC article explaining about the Civil War in Sierra Leone, an eleven-year war in which tens of thousands died and over 1/3 of the population was displaced. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier is Ishmael Beah's account of his experience of that war. In one day, he lost his entire family and set out on a flight from both sides of the conflict (both the government and the rebels were recruiting children as "troops").

Traveling with other frightened, traumatized boys, searching for scattered family and friends as well as foraging for food, the boys nevertheless appeared to some villages as a threat, precisely because they were the same age as forced recruits that rebels sent to scope out villages prior to attacks. Instead of finding shelter and solace as orphaned children, they were most often driven away by people frightened of rebel attacks. Sierra Leone was in chaos, its culture in tatters.

A Long Way Gone isn't just as sad story, however. For one thing, Beah is a talented writer. The book is beautifully written and artfully crafted. His writer's mind is evident in his detailed memories, and in his ability to slip in and out of the thoughts he had at different times in his painful childhood.

Some reviews I have read say that the most hopeful aspect of this story is Beah's having made his way to the U.S., finished high school and graduated from Oberlin. He has put his past behind him, they say. Ah, the flexibility and resilience of the child, to have gone through such terrors and put them in the past!

Yet I read this book differently. Having known a child who lived through the Ethiopia/Eritrea conflict, I have seen firsthand what can happen when a person does not find his whole self again. What Beah has been able to do - the true miracle of his experience - is that he has integrated his past with his present to come out of the horror a whole person. The things he saw, and did, will always be a part of him. But he appears to be at peace with them. Bless him. May the rest of us find such peace.


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