A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
20 Word Gist
Bloody civil war in Sierra Leone takes hostages: childhoods. Flashbacks cut through jungle and drug haze; American haven isn’t nightmare-proof.
It wasn’t until refugees started passing through our town that we began to see that it was actually taking place in our country.
Ishmael Beah’s memoir begins much the same way: we hear about the war before we see it. It’s there in the title, “Boy Solider.” Knowing that and the setting, the reading is much of what you would expect: graphic and heart-rending. After reading Kaffir Boy, I thought I knew what to expect. A Long Way Gone would be a narrative describing how the author got from point A to point B and escaped adversity. In some ways my prediction was correct. The memoir begins with a trip he and his rap and dance group make to a talent show in another town. While there, Sierra Leon’s civil war finds them, and after that, Beah spends much of the narrative in the jungle running from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).
Chances to escape death were better at night, because the red track of the bullets could be seen in the dark.
Eventually, the boys stumble upon the government soldiers, who act much the same as the RUF, minus the RUF branding scar. To describe the action, uncertainty, or suspense that drive the narrative would be to somehow diminish it or trivialize the personal experience. I’ve always felt uncomfortable analyzing someone’s life put down in words the same way I might analyze a piece of fiction.
“You will get used to it, everybody does eventually,” he said.
But perhaps Beah anticipated some of his readers would have this same reaction, because he manipulates the structure of the narrative to create art from nihilism.
The middle section of the book, where he is actually a boy solider, is slim. Almost as soon as he joins, he escapes and is placed with a rehabilitation center with exceedingly patient and loving staff:
It hadn’t crossed their minds that a change of environment wouldn’t immediately make us normal boys; we were dangerous, and brainwashed to kill. They had just started this process of rehabilitation, so this was one of the first lessons they had to learn.
Only at the center as he goes through drug withdrawal, does he recount many scenes from his days as a soldier. These flashbacks attempt to recreate his experience: while drugged, scared, and adrenaline-pumped, fighting was a blur, but afterward, these experiences haunt him. As he relieves these events, we the readers experience the same through the jarring nightmares.
Beah doesn’t leave the reader there at the rehabilitation center. He makes it to a UN conference and when – yet another – civil war breaks out, an American friend helps him escape to America. And yet, there we wonder just how much an escape there can be:
These days I live in three worlds: my dreams, and the experiences of my new life, which trigger memories from the past.
Early in the book, Beah describes his love of American rap and his ability to recite Shakespeare, and both reappear in discussions with other boys and soldiers. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about rap music, so I would delegate that research to students (see below). I do know about Shakespeare, however, and the when one of the generals quotes Macbeth, I didn’t miss the irony. Specifically, the general would recite this line, “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill shall come against him.” Now, out of context, that quotation seems inspiring, and when translocated to the Sierra Leone jungle, Macbeth could tell a different play. Laura Bohannan wrote about the difficultly in translating what some call “The Cannon” in her essay “Shakespeare in the Bush.” Basically, plot elements and character’s motivations take on different meanings when told within a different culture. While Beah doesn’t go there, I wonder what effect that line might have one someone surrounded by actual trees behind which enemy soldiers might emerge at any moment. Also, I find it curious that Macbeth’s tragic end and the double-meaning of Birnam Wood marching toward him are completely lost on the general. Were I there, I think both the figurative Wood and literal forest would sap any courage from me.
Were I to teach…
This book seems like an easy sell to students: it’s relevant and Beah is roughly the same age as many of the students. Also, many of Beah’s interests, like rap and dancing, might connect with students. Depending on the class, I might invite students to research rap’s origins and discuss how rap creates art from violence and rebellion. After all, the act of creation is an empowering act and establishes order.
I might also draw students’ attention to how self-aware the book is. It knows it is telling a story, and throughout the narrative, Beah thinks about stories he’s heard and stories help keep the boys moving forward. He highlights the power of stories, for example, here:
Under these stars and sky I used to hear stories, but now it seemed as if it was the sky that was telling us a story as its stars fell, violently colliding with each other. The moon hid behind clouds to avoid seeing what was happening.
Who’s telling the story? How are stories made? Who listens?
Finally, I’d also want to talk about the didactic characteristic of stories and storytelling, but within their culture and in general. I’d point students to the two stories below and have them conduct their own research, because it’s clear by the book’s beginning and end, that Beah is trying to teach the reader something beyond his own experience and the civil war in Sierra Leone. A Long Way Gone, like many stories, helps the reader discover how he or she feels about the world and to wrestle with hypothetical situations.
‘If you shoot me, your mother will die, and if you don’t, your father will die.’ The monkey resumed its position, chewing its food, and every so often scratched its head or the side of its belly. “What would you do if you were the hunter?”
I concluded to myself that if I were the hunter, I would shoot the monkey so that it would no longer have the chance to put other hunters in the same predicament.
Two good sites to start exploring storytelling in Sierra Leone:
“Sierra Leonean storyteller fights to preserve oral tradition” by Nina deVries
“Ethnographic Field Research in Sierra Leone, Storytelling” by Ben Phillips. Both the abstract and paper are on the author’s website. This is a good resource because it not only shows students an example of ethnographic research, but also shows how students should begin to create digital portfolios of their professional work.