A Long Way Gone

Date April 4, 2007

What is so striking and moving in Ishmael Beah’s account of his life as a child soldier in war torn Sierra Leone is how deeply he pulls us as reader into his soul as an innocent child. Almost half of the book recounts his experiences during the war before taking up arms. The tension of what we know will come (but not how) is harrowing, and when at last he does enter into a world of violence, death and drugs, we are no longer able to separate his actions from the soul we have grown so close to. He has let us into his inner world, from which we are somehow able to understand his most inhumane actions. As a child soldier, he becomes completely severed emotionally and pscyhologically from his behavior. We, like him, watch it from the outside. We can never ultimately escape from our own actions, however, and with equal depth and honesty, he takes us through his reckoning with himself.

Equally disturbing in this memoir is the inescapability of his situation and that of his countrymen. One of our greatest weaknesses in America, it seems to me, is our ability to numb, to forget that something unpleasant is going on (whether in our life or in the world). We feel compassion or distress when we see the news, then we go back to our normal life. We are adept at both forgetting and hiding. It has been many generations since we as a people have experienced this horror of having no place to hide nor run to, and having the danger and violence be too pervasive to forget. [This is a general statement, which has certain exceptions such as inner city ghettos, but today the average American simply cannot understand what it feels like to live in Baghdad, and have no other choice.] When the war catches up w/ Ishmael in Freetown, after his rehabilitation, the prospect of being replunged into violence provokes a despair far greater than that of his first brushes with the war. He is conscious now, having made clear and hard choices about who he wants to be as a man, and yet his aspirations are being torn from him just as he begins to believe in hope again. There is nowhere to hide, no way to make it go away.

In the end, what is most inspiring to me in this book is the commitment of this young man to stop the cycle of violence and revenge, no matter how much his rageful reactions pushed him to do otherwise. This is a story about taking a stand, and the obstacles we as people can go through to be a positive force for humanity. We all have something to learn from Ishmael about who we are as citizens of the world irregardless of the circumstances life throws our way.


Shayne Hughes


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