A long time ago, I promised book or music reviews as a Lazy Fridays feature of the blog. I spent the last couple of weeks of January planning my blog for February so that I can actually deliver on such promises! This is the first.
“New York City, 1998
My high school friends have begun to suspect I haven’t told them the full story of my life.
‘Why did you leave Sierra Leone?’
‘Because there is a war.’
‘Did you witness some of the fighting?’
‘Everyone in the country did.’
‘You mean you saw people running around with guns and shooting each other?’
‘Yes, all the time.’
I smile a little.
‘You should tell us about it sometime.’
‘Yes, sometime.’ ”
“A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier” is written by Ishamael Beah. Well-known advocacy groups like Invisible Children have given us knowledge and feeling about the LRA’s former & present army of child soldiers from Uganda. Beah’s memoir gives that same awareness, and heart, to the child soldiers that are a part of other wars in Africa; specifically, Sierra Leone in the ‘90s.
I found this book for $1 at the library’s used book sale. For two weeks I put off cracking the cover because I knew it would be hard to read. When I finally did, I read on and on until I finished it in one evening. That’s not because Beah sugarcoats anything for his undoubtedly majority American audience of readers, oh no! His memory kept me captive.
Beah writes clear, detailed memories with a beautiful rhythmic voice I’ve read from other African authors. I love the way culture affects a writer’s voice – of course each one has their own style and voice, but culture inevitably affects in. Latino writers speak with music and let a reader taste their words (i.e. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Sandra Cisneros). And from many parts of the wind-and-fire continent of Africa, authors keep rhythm, even when the subject breaks their hearts. To the untrained eye Beah’s words would seem matter-of-fact and unfeeling. Read a little closer and even as the horror of burning mothers reaches you, so does the tearing of Beah’s heart.
For nearly half of the book, Beah is on a constant journey to find his family after an initial attack from the rebels separated them. He travels with other boys who only seek food, shelter, and a way home. Just as they arrive at the village where their families have fled to, the rebels attack. The village, and their families, are utterly destroyed before their own eyes. When I read Beah’s book, I thought this had to be the worst of it. How could anything more devastating happen to a 12-year-old boy who trudged through the jungle and villages where not one soul was left un-mutilated; who traveled with friends, stalked by killers and spiritual oppression; who buried a friend and carried a sense of doom on his shoulders; who stood a few yards away from holding his mother again but then was completely separated from her, with no hope?
Even after this horror, Beah seems to reach a shaky safety in a village of orphans and frightened villagers protected by the country’s soldiers. Then he is recruited into the army, and we are able to realize the tower of rage within this boy’s soul. This is truly the worst event. This is also the beginning of the story – despite being a hundred pages in – because it is from this point that Beah could have been lost to death or to his own hate. It is for what happens between his recruitment and his move to the US that makes the story something I will, one day, read again.
Beah’s honest report of the terror (Is there any stronger word? That would be more appropriate.) he both witnesses and creates make the commencement of the final pages something redemptive. And isn’t that what most of us look for? Not just in the end of a book, memoir or fiction, but in the stages of our lives.
This memoir also raises important questions. Indirectly, Beah points out that though the rebels are the army’s enemy, neither one holds much honor or legitimacy. Both brutally destroy, use rage and narcotics as key motivators for their soldiers, and recruit mere children for the shedding of blood and life. The original motives behind a “side” are not a worthless thing to know, but they are not a focus of Beah’s memoir because at this point in the war, anger is the key motive and horror is the chief result. Unsurprisingly, this book also brings up the question of interference. When is the right time for another nation to interfere with a country’s turmoil? Yes, how little is too little – but when is too much, too much.
After reading this book, crying for Beah, and, seriously, getting sick to my stomach (I suppose you could call it “graphic.”), I’ve concluded that to readers this memoir is especially important for two things:
First, the eyes of a mostly inwardly-looking Western audience are opened and turned outward. This book makes us aware and ifwe turn back after that, we are no longer an innocent bystander to the realities of the world. So read with care.
Second, it is incredibly valuable to note that the most important people in Beah’s life – the people who are a part of his recovery and the people who give him back the hope of life – are not so because they are part of a government organization. There may be a place for government aid, but the life-givers in Beah’s story were so effective because they strove to be. Brief associations with government existed, but it was not that association that made the difference. It was the heart and choice of the individual; personal action and love. These things are more powerful than what comes out of the arbitrary boundaries of a nation.
Ishamael Beah, you presented us with your story and in doing so, your heart. Thank you.
Readers, we cannot let that be for nothing. Compassion is rocket fuel.