I thought about not writing a review of this short read (A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah, 2008) that will haunt the reader long after turning the last page. It's difficult to read because of the way the pain condenses on the page like the humid night air of rainy reason. The memoir is of a young man recounting his life growing up in a rural village in Sierra Leone in western Africa. The story enfolds in the mid-1990s as rebel soldiers attack his home village while he is away with friends at a hip-hop festival in a neighboring area. The violence follows him, cutting him loose from his family, familiar places, and everything necessary for survival.
There is only a short part of the book dedicated to his actual experience as a soldier. In a way, I'm thankful. I appreciate battlefield memoirs, such as The Things They Carried and Matterhorn. It is just too hard to read knowing it is just a child in the center of this nightmare. The last seventy pages recount Beah's repatriation and rehabilitation into society. It reads like Ender's Game meets the Maze Runner, but for reals. (MINOR SPOILER: Eventually, he is brought in by an uncle). The story seems to end abruptly, not with a full stop, but with an ellipsis.
The book does not offer a chronological account of events but instead emerges as a patchwork of memories. There are gaps which will frustrate some readers, as noted on the Goodreads reviews. I advise the read to Just take it as it is. Along with the parts of the story that almost hurt to read, it is possible to discover glimpses of life in west Africa: the preparation of food (gari, cassava, leaves, chicken as a specialty), the tight-knit and large families including the important role of the uncle, the predominance of Islam (in which adherents are victimized by the violence and war as much as anyone else in this book), the seemingly incessant nearness of loss and imminent death, and how children experience life and death in ways that are beyond the comprehension of most Westerners. I kept thinking of my friends and colleagues that lived through this war that touched not only Sierra Leone but Liberia also. I prayed for them and their neighbors, again.
I'm grateful for the attempt made by Beah, a 2004 Oberlin grad, to tell his story to the rest of the world. I hope it continues his road toward healing, and maybe finding his way home again.
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