In Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, Beah’s narrative follows a common trajectory in narratives about war: he moves from a state of innocence to one of experience. What is Beah’s life like at the beginning, and how does he respond to the sudden change of circumstances? How does he survive and begin to adapt to his new environment? How does he eventually regain his humanity?

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Ishmael Beah's novel A Long Way Gone opens when the protagonist is ten years old and completely innocent about the destructive nature of the civil war moving inexorably towards his village, Mogbwemo. Although Ishmael had previously encountered refugees fleeing the path of violence, he couldn't grasp the reality of war until rebels actually attacked Mogbwemo; Ishmael internalizes the chaos, confusion and bloodshed, which represents the loss of his innocence. Inevitably, he feels terrified, horrified, plagued by nightmares, and afraid of being caught and conscripted into the rebel army. 

Dire necessity and extreme deprivation brought about by starvation slowly prompt Ishmael, his brother and their friends to abandon their pre-war ethics and morals in order to satisfy their basic needs. For example, while on the run from the rebels and overcome with hunger, Ishmael and his cohorts resort to stealing from strangers after they are unable to buy food; this is an injustice they would not have contemplated committing before, but it reflects the extent to which they are willing to compromise their value system in order to survive. 

After Ishmael is caught and conscripted by the Sierra Leonean government army, he faces an entirely new, harsher reality of becoming the embodiment of the evil he had been fleeing. This transformation moves beyond simply loss of innocence into mentally and emotionally inhabiting the depravity (murder, violence, loose morals) he had previously abhorred. However, his behavior is again a matter of survival and adapting to a lawless community; fitting in and complying with orders -- even brutal ones -- are necessities. One 'effective' method the army employs to force the child soldiers to adapt to their new environment is to make them addicted to drugs: marijuana and "brown brown", a cocaine gunpowder mix. Being high enables Ishmael to stay emotionally numb to the losses he experienced during the war and to comply with the army's brainwashing doctrine about justified revenge killings on rebels; perversely, Ishmael's squad becomes his replacement family.

When Ishmael is eventually liberated by UNICEF at age fifteen and placed in a rehabilitation center in Sierra Leone, he slowly begins to regain his humanity by experiencing the healing kindness and patience of the nurses and hospital staff. Wracked by drug withdrawal symptoms and tortured revelations of atrocities he had committed, Ishmael has a rocky road to recovery. One nurse in particular, Esther, helps him with music therapy and offers a calm, empathetic, dependable presence. Her influence, combined with his own desire to process his traumas and reconnect with the happier memories of his childhood, enable Ishmael to regain his core humanity; creating a new family dynamic with Esther, his uncle Tommy, and friends at the center helps Ishmael build hope, self-awareness and confidence. 

 

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