I read Ishmael Beah’s book A Long Way Gone in one day. I am overwhelmed by Ismael’s story of abuse, terror, courage, and resilience during the Sierra Leone war of the 1990s.
Ishmael Beah shares his memoir in an open, empathy-provoking manner. His English, while good, carries a hint of his African history. He shares openly, without any attempt at exonerating himself for his actions. He shares his inner turmoil and his constant terror. I found his resolve to recover from his experiences staggering and courageous.
I was riveted to his story, as he took me from his peaceful childhood, through the realities of violent civil war (where neither side is innocent), running for his life, starving and fleeing for months on end, longing for family–even for friendship and trust–right into the horrors of becoming a child soldier. This account of children committing horrific acts makes sense when considering their trauma, stress, and constant drug use. The book ended very abruptly, which I found odd; I was glad, at least, that he took us through his rehabilitation and final escape from the country. I have been wanting an inside look into the lives of child soldiers, and I have gotten it. I am grieving for him and the thousands of other children who are forced into this lifestyle.
However, there is a lot of turmoil surrounding the accuracy of this book. If you’re interested in its authenticity, read some of the articles on the web about it. Apparently, Beah took poetic license with dates, events, people, etc., which does bring the honestly of the work as a whole into question. Personally, this ruined the experience for me a bit, after I read a few articles.
Read the Slate article if you’re interested in opposing viewpoints about the book’s authenticity. My personal opinion is that Beah was affected by both the trauma (you can mess up times) and the initial writing of this piece as a fictional story. Together, I imagine it’s hard, even for Beah, to separate fact from realistic fiction. He was hocked up on cocaine for the whole ordeal, after all. He may also well have been fictionalizing the story on purpose, for effect. He apparently began writing his memoir for a creative writing class in college. Regardless, Beah’s experience happened, whether for 3 months or 2 years, and it dramatically changed him forever. The debate over authenticity appears to be mostly about shabby research and irresponsible publishing, rather than a personal attack on an obviously traumatized boy.
The story reminded me of Elie Weisel’s Night, also a teenage boy’s memoir of horror and tragedy at the hands of violent men. Weisel was in concentration camps for a year, yet it took him 20 years to even speak about the events.
I recommend A Long Way Gone to everyone, including teenagers. I haven’t thought of anything else since I began and finished it yesterday.