Anyone can watch the news or read an article, but none of that compares to experiencing the horrors of a war-torn region firsthand. It’s the power of storytelling that can transport readers into another world; a world in which children graduate from toy guns to AK-47s before they’re old enough to drive. In his powerful, riveting memoir, entitled A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, Ishmael Beah relates his experiences at the frontlines of Sierra Leone’s civil war, and his transformation from an ordinary teenager into a drug-fueled killing machine.
At twelve years old, Beah is a happy, carefree kid, a serious student and a rap and reggae music enthusiast, until an army of rebels target his village, leaving a trail of carnage in their wake. Beah and his friends go on the run survive, wandering from village to village before turning to weapons to avenge their families. These boys become militiamen and are given cocaine and amphetamines by their lieutenant—an effective means of brainwashing them into carrying out mass slaughters in a blind rage. The novel goes on to chronicle Beah’s transition back into civilized society at age fifteen; a transition made possible by the humanitarian efforts of UNICEF.
Beah is a pleasant, conversational narrator, and at once relatable, so that his experiences feel vivid and real to readers. His story is an account of universal human struggle, and easily accessible to anyone, regardless of native origin or personal experience. Not only does he shine light on the socio-political crises of his native country; he also narrows his scope to give a firsthand look into individual accounts of the civil war and how it affected his friends and family as well as himself.
Also poignant is the determination of UNICEF officials to rescue these boy soldiers from a life of senseless violence. Once transferred from their base to the rehab center, the boys rebel, sneaking in knives and grenades, breaking out in fights and at times assaulting the officials themselves. Beah, however, bonds with the center’s nurse and is thus rehabilitated, thereby paving the way for his future as a UN spokesman and children’s rights advocate.
A Long Way Gone is hard-hitting yet engaging, heartbreaking yet ultimately triumphant. While this will likely be Beah’s only novel, I would gladly read anything else he may write in the future, as he has proven to be an excellent storyteller as well as an inspirational success story to those who have been affected by war.