When we meet Ishmael in chapter 10, he and his friends have traveled to a number of different villages, where they experience a great sense of hospitality and a respite from the violence of war. Ishmael struggles to conceive of a life outside of war, but during this time, he...
When we meet Ishmael in chapter 10, he and his friends have traveled to a number of different villages, where they experience a great sense of hospitality and a respite from the violence of war. Ishmael struggles to conceive of a life outside of war, but during this time, he does let himself recollect happier memories. Musa’s interweaving of folklore, as he tells the story of the duplicitous Bra Spider, provides an opportunity for Ishmael and the other boys to become lost in the world of imagination and memory. Bra Spider, a spider who wishes to greedily attend every feast of celebration, attaches ropes to himself before draping them throughout every village with the hope of being tugged from one to the next. As Musa relays, when all the villages begin their feasts simultaneously, Bra Spider is tugged in multiple directions:
He was suspended in the air above his village, pulled from all directions. Bra Spider screamed for help, but the drums and songs from his village square drowned his voice.
Although this quote gestures toward folklore and the negative consequences of greed, it also acts as a metaphor for Ishmael’s situation. He has experienced violence and warfare in some villages, whilst experiencing great kindness in others, and so, like Bra Spider, he is “pulled from all directions.” He does not have a consistent perspective, as even when peace and happiness emerge, they are soon overshadowed by death, as occurs when Saidu dies in the same village that showed them such warmth.
Like Bra Spider, the boys are uprooted and torn away from their families by war, with the sounds of war always driving them back toward violence. Through this image, the reader is able to gain some understanding of Ishmael’s position. As he is torn in a multitude of directions, his mind is unable to reach a state of happiness or equilibrium, with the turbulence of his environment contributing to this instability.
Chapter 11 follows a similar trajectory, with Ishmael experiencing hope swiftly followed by devastation. Just as Ishmael and the other boys believe that their families may be alive, this hope is quickly displaced by the image of empty huts and burnt bodies, as the rebels’ boast of their murderous attacks. Ishmael is left uncertain as to whether his family has escaped or perished, and a deep sense of disillusionment sets in.
Ishmael’s capture as he is taken to the village of Yele offers a welcome respite from the violence, as he engages in outdoor labor. But the peace offered by Yele is soon shattered, as Ishmael and the other boys are officially conscripted as child soldiers. Chapter 12, therefore, signifies the most radical change for Ishmael’s character, as he becomes fully indoctrinated and devoted to military service, propelled by a desire for revenge.
In chapter 13, the reader witnesses a brief return to innocence, as the boys are allowed to spend the day playing soccer and swimming. The juxtaposition between this carefree play and the horrifying violence the boys engage in during training is particularly striking. Part of becoming a soldier for Ishmael means becoming a man, and to become a man he must lose all human emotions and self-medicate with drugs to maintain a state of numbness. The fact that Ishmael has been successfully instituted into manhood, and is becoming a successful soldier, is demonstrated by his killing a man for the first time. He states:
I was not afraid of these lifeless bodies. I despised them and kicked them to flip them.
Ishmael’s flippant attitude and ability to dehumanize those he kills shows that by chapter 13, murder itself has become a kind of sport.