A Long Way Gone records the harrowing experiences of Ishmael Beah as he journeys with his brother and friends through his homeland of Sierra Leone during the civil war that took place in that African nation from 1991 through 2002. Beah becomes an unwilling boy soldier in that conflict after being separated from his parents and hometown of Mogbwemo in southern Sierra Leone.
The author’s journey begins innocently enough. Twelve-year-old Beah, his older brother Junior, and a friend leave Mogbwemo on foot and head for Mattru Jong, sixteen miles away, to participate in a talent show. The boys intend to perform rap music in the show, and they embark on their journey wearing baggy pants and carrying backpacks filled with notebooks of rap lyrics and rap cassettes. This innocent journey, however, commences against the backdrop of a violent civil war that has already exploded in Sierra Leone. President Joseph Saidu Momoh has been ousted in a military coup, and his replacement, the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), is, according to Beah, corrupt. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) has been sacking villages in an attempt to create chaos and prove that the NPRC is ineffective. On their journey to Mattru Jong, Beah and his party see refugees on the road, leaving villages attacked by the RUF and telling stories of harrowing violence and human suffering.
While Beah and his brother and friend are in Mattru Jong, they learn that rebels have attacked Mogbwemo. They realize that it is unsafe to return home and that they are likely to be separated from their families for a long time. When rebels move toward Mattru Jong, the boys flee and begin wandering toward the seacoast in search of some safe haven, but they encounter instead the brutal violence and gruesome debris of civil war—ransacked villages, an imam burned alive, a traveling companion shot and killed. Exposed to such violence,...
While readers in the United States might occasionally read a news report that mentions child soldiers or encounter statistics about the fate of children in war zones, few can imagine how average people, and especially children, could take part in the atrocities. Ishmael Beah’s memoir, A Long Way Home: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, tells how an ordinary boy became a ruthless soldier and then overcame his terrible experiences. The memoir not only highlights the complexity of human nature under stress but also adds an important voice to political and policy discussions on the effects of war on children.
Beah acknowledges in the prologue (dated New York City, 1998) that readers will probably be emotionally distant from the subject matter. For part of a page, he provides details that set up a contrast with what will follow. The narrator describes speaking with high school friends who are curious about the war in his home country. They think it is “cool” that Beah “saw people running around with guns and shooting each other.” He promises to tell them about it sometime.
The prologue anchors the story as one told after the fact by a storyteller to friends. Although many of the details in the memoir are horrific, Beah helps the reader through it by maintaining the tone of a storyteller somewhat distanced from what has happened. Though many of Beah’s memories include tragedy, personal loss, and extreme violence, he lets the facts speak for themselves.
Beah begins the main narration in chapter 1 by explaining that, at the beginning of the war, he knew about it only through stories told by others fleeing the fighting. In this way, he opens the memoir by forming connections with the readers, who are likewise learning about the war through a story told by someone else: “There were all kinds of stories told about the war that made it sound as if it was happening in a faraway and different land.” While Beah observes that the refugees telling the stories have been strongly affected by what they have seen, his own experience with war, like that of American readers’, is formed through popular culture. He mentions books and movies such as Rambo: First Blood (1982). Those works of fiction produced in other countries at first seem more real than the war in his own country. As the fighting moves into his area, getting together with his friends and listening to rap music remain the twelve-year-old’s immediate concerns.
When their village is invaded by rebel soldiers, Beah and his brother Junior are visiting friends in town. Separated from their family and not knowing if any of them are alive, they and their friends wander from village to village trying to stay away from the soldiers. Most people are too afraid of teenage boys to help them. They encounter other homeless boys in their travels, but there is no system in place to help them. In fact, all semblance of normal society has fallen apart. It is not clear what the fighting factions stand for, and no governmental services remain. There are no police officers protecting anyone, no one to feed or shelter the war orphans, and no one to help children separated from their families to find them or to find food while they search.
After being separated from Junior and his friends, Beah spends time alone, lost in a forest, and eventually meets up with another group of boys, some of whom he knew before the war. After months of roaming, he meets someone from his former village who knows where his parents and brother Junior are. As they approach the village where the family is staying, gunshots break out. They hide in the jungle until the fighting ends, but by that time everyone in the village is dead.
While much of the memoir is narrated in a fairly neutral tone, the description of the village after the slaughter is one of the most detailed in the book, and Beah includes his intense emotions in the narration. “I screamed at the top of my lungs and began to cry as loudly as I could, punching and kicking with all my might into the weak walls that continued to burn. I had lost my sense of touch. My hands and feet punched and kicked the burning walls, but I couldn’t feel a thing.” His grief gives way...
Abbas, Fatin. “The New Face of War.” The Nation 284 (May 28, 2007): 38-44. Review essay discussing Beah’s A Long Way Gone, P. W. Singer’s Children at War, and Jimmie Briggs’s Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War.
Beah, Ishmael. “Interview with Ishmael Beah.” Kennedy School Review 7 (2007): 1-5. Beah discusses his book, his life since leaving Sierra Leone, and his efforts to enact international laws against the use of child soldiers.
Luscombe, Belinda. “Pop Culture Finds Lost Boys.” Time 169 (February 12, 2007): 62-64. Predicts rock-star status for Ishmael Beah based on his book, his engaging personality, and his eloquence as a public speaker.
Mengestu, Dinaw. “Children of War.” New Statesman 136 (June 18, 2007): 60-61. Discusses A Long Way Gone and two other books about boy soldiers—David Eggers’s What Is the What and Biyi Bandele’s Burma Boy (2007).
Pham, John-Peter. The Sierra Leonean Tragedy: History and Global Dimensions. New York: Nova Science, 2006. Comprehensive history of the 1990’s civil war in Sierra Leone.