Thursday, May 14, 2009

I've been wanting to read A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah for a long time, and I finally found a reason to move it to the top of my reading list now that it's been nominated for the 2010 Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award. Written as a memoir, Beah tells the story of how his childhood was destroyed by the civil war in Sierra Leone, which began in 1991 and lasted for eleven years. Beah was in a distant village participating in a hip hop dance showcase (!) when he and his friends heard that rebels had invaded their home village. The boys were forced to flee into the forest because the rebels were reportedly headed in their direction. They spent months hiding in forests and as temporary guests in villages along their way, although many villages thought that Beah and his friends were child soldiers fighting for the rebels and refused to allow them shelter. After a year or so of flight, and after seeing the village in which his family was supposedly hiding burned to the ground, Beah was conscripted by the army into military servitude. This wasn't entirely objectionable in Beah's mind, as it at least provided him with food, protection, and the chance to exact revenge for his parents' murders. While in the army, however, Beah became addicted to cocaine and numb to the killings he both witnessed and perpetrated. Beah was eventually rescued by UNICEF and rehabilitated while living in a refugee-style camp for orphans of the civil war. His story continued and ultimately had a somewhat-happy resolution when he makes his way to New York City as a United Nations representative (although his story can't have a truly "feel good ending" due to the tragic nature of his young life).

I really liked this book because it surprised me; I had anticipated a grueling, unpleasant reading experience, but instead found Beah's account to be engaging, honest, and humorous at times without compromising the serious issue of the civil war and his descriptions of child soldiers. I was also mesmerized by Beah and his friends' passion for early '90s American rap and hip hop music: at several time throughout the memoir, Beah includes references to Naughty By Nature, Heavy D and the Boyz, and Tupac Shakur. This inclusion of a world with which I am familiar (not that I claim to be an early '90s hip hop expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I do like the music) brought Beah's foreign experience with war and soldiering into sharp relief for me; it was a jarring juxtaposition of the familiar with the "unknowable-ness" of Beah's life in Sierra Leone.

Having said all that, however, after Googling "Ishmael Beah", I discovered that there has been controversy surrounding A Long Way Gone and Beah's version of the events and chronology he describes. The Slate article I read is linked here. I'm disappointed, but not entirely surprised that Beah may have taken some poetic license with his memoir, the practice of which has been cause for much argument and discussion regarding several recent memoirs (notably A Million Little Pieces by James Frey). So, read A Long Way Gone. Keep in mind that some of the events may not have happened exactly as described, but take from it Beah's voice, and his passion for his country, and the confident knowledge that children ARE having their childhoods snatched away from them, ARE being brutalized, and DO need our help. 4 out of 4 Bananas!
Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award 2010 Nominee

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