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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah

I recently finished this book written by the boy soldier himself, now grown up at 26 years old and living in New York City. The non-fiction piece is very well written for a non-native English speaker. The power of this book, however, does not come from the quality of the writing, but from the incredible, heartbreaking story.

Ishmael was born in Sierra Leone,on the west coast of Africa, in 1980. In 1992 his country was in the midst of a brutal civil war and Ishmael became separated from nearly all of his family. He and several other boys, including his older brother, roamed the countryside, hiding from the violence as best they could, and surviving on whatever they could beg off of someone, or, in most cases, steal. It was a miserable and terrifying existence, but those turned out to be some of the better times, because eventually Ishmael was captured by the army and forced to join the fighting.

From ages thirteen to sixteen Ishmael fought beside his friends, high on drugs the army gave all the boys to keep them amped up for killing. The acts they committed were horrific, and many are recounted with a fair amount of detail which is pretty disturbing, even for an adult, so I will not be putting this book in our library. However, the realities of war are not very nice, and this is a good reality check for those whose vision of war is what we often see in the movies. War is a horrible thing, and the inclusion of children in its violence is unforgivable.

At age sixteen UNICEF pulled Ishmael from the fighting, but I was disappointed to read some of the things that happened after the "rescue". The children in the shelter were, of course, in a better place than being out in combat every day, but it seemed like UNICEF had very little in the way of a plan of what to do with these children once they rescued them. It was not much more safe in the shelter at some times than it had seemed outside it.

However, once the drugs wore off and the children got more used to their new surroundings, most of them did seem to adapt. IT was not, however, easy for them, and I believe it had to be much more difficult than was alluded to in this book. There were mentions of some of the young people being withdrawn, rarely speaking, having difficulty adjusting, but it wasn't very deeply addressed, even for the author himself. That is, I'm sure, a coping strategy, and undoubtedly necessary, but I would have liked to read more about the depth of their thoughts and underlying struggles.

Ishmael is one of the lucky ones; he ended up being able to come and live in the United States, finish high school at the UN International School in New York, attend and graduate from Oberlin College, and he is now a member of the Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Division Advisory Committee. Unfortunately, as soon as he is leaving Sierra Leone, the book ends, and we do not hear anything about what happened once he got here. There are a few mentions of things in the course of the story, but overall we know very little about what happened when he left. I'm not sure why this is, but I thought it was a very unsatisfying conclusion, and I was very disappointed. However, it was still definitely worth reading and will provide lots of really great discussion among people who read it. I would not recommend this book to middle schoolers unless they are reading it with an adult so they can talk about it together. It is available at Multnomah County Libraries.

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