A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

As part of my reading about great war tragedies — which I can’t seem to get enough of — A Long Way Gone is a really amazing book. It is the story of Ishmael Beah, a boy soldier in Sierra Leone, a country run into the ground by a corrupt government and rival militias, in a war fueled by the diamond trade. In this, it is closely related to the story of international diamond smuggling, which is horrifically portrayed in another equally great book — this one by a Western journalist — Blood Diamond by Greg Campbell.

I will say that relatively little of A Long Way Gone is actually about being a boy soldier. Mostly, Beah was a shit-scared little kid running like hell from crazed motherfuckers with guns. It is not a pretty story, and there is brutality described in this book that will give you nightmares like you wouldn’t believe.

The narrative lags a bit during the time of the author’s “rehabilitation,” possibly because the author isn’t (or wasn’t) old enough to really understand the process. The result is a description of the “rehabilitation” process that is interesting enough — but somewhat opaque from the author’s perspective

I think that observation is an important part of the puzzle in rehabilitating child soldiers and other victims of trauma, but it also makes for a less interesting book. I would have liked to know more about how rehabilitation workers, psychotherapists, physicians, psychiatrists, etc, deal with children and adults who have survived this kind of trauma — but I’ll have to get it elsewhere. There’s a bit more of that in the context of Sudan, still from the rehabilitat-ee’s perspective, in War Child by Emmanuel Jal, another brilliant war memoir from the northern sub-Saharan part of Africa.

Regardless of that little quibble, A Long Way Gone is invaluable. It is a great and universal memoir about a tragic and horrific series of events, told with an engaging voice. Here is my favorite part of the whole book, used in the opening. It’s a conversation between Ishmael and some new friends at school, after he gets refugee status and moves to the United States:

My new 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.”

“You mean, you saw people running around with guns and shooting each other?”

“Yes, all the time.”

“Cool.”

I smile a little.

“You should tell us about it sometime.”

“Yes, sometime.”

In case you’re wondering…no, it wasn’t cool. It wasn’t cool at all.  A Long Way Gone should be required reading for any politician who wants to start a war.

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