Monday, August 13, 2007

Brief Review: Ishmael Beah, "A Long Way Gone"

I recently read Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone, after hearing a great deal about it earlier this spring. (Beah was interviewed all over the place, and the book was actually on sale at Starbucks at some point...)

This is one of those cases where the hype is actually on target.

The basics of the story will be familiar to many readers. Beah is a former child soldier, who was displaced from his home and separated from his parents near the beginning of the civil war in Sierra Leone. He was 12 at the time. For several months he, his brother, and a group of friends walked through the jungle fleeing the rebels that had destroyed his village. But as they encounter various kinds of violence along the way, Beah is periodically separated from the group; at certain points he walks through the jungle entirely alone, and forages for food to survive. Eventually, Beah is "recruited" into the Sierra Leonean army, which struggled to keep up with the the RUF rebels throughout the mid-1990s. Beah becomes a soldier who fights ruthlessly, all the while hopped up on speed and cocaine mixed with gunpowder ("brown brown").

What's remarkable about the story is the way in which Beah, who was later removed from the conflict by UNICEF, and eventually adopted by a woman in New York City, manages to preserve a sense of innocence in his account of the darkest chapters of his childhood experiences. Sometimes the naivete of his voice seems a little forced, but for the most part it is quite effective at conveying what is in essence a horrible paradox: Beah was a child who was trained to be a vicious killer.

A blogger has posted an excerpt from the passage where Beah describes his first experience in combat here.

But my favorite passages are actually not the gory, "thick of battle" scenes, but rather some of the quieter moments, as in the following account of the month Beah spent (again, at age 12 -- and this is also before he got involved in combat) walking through the jungle:

The most difficult part of being in the forest was the loneliness. It became unbearable each day. One thing about being lonesome is that you think too much, especially when there isn't much else you can do. I didn't like this and I tried to stop myself from thinking, but nothing seemed to work. I decided to just ignore every thought that came to my head, because it brought too much sadness. Apart from eating and drinking water and once every other day taking a bath, I spent most of my time fighting myself mentally in order to avoid thinking about what I had seen or wondering where my life was going, where my family and friends were. The more I resisted thinking, the longer the days became, and I felt as if my head was becoming heavier each passing day. I became restless and afraid and was afraid to sleep for fear that my suppressed thoughts would appear in my dreams.

As I searched the forest for more food and to find a way out, I feared coming in contact with wild animals like leopards, lions, and wild pigs. So I stayed closer to trees that I could easily mount to hid myself from these animals. I walked as fast as I could, but the more I walked, the more it seemed I was getting deeper into the thickness of the forest. The harder I tried to get out, the bigger and taller the trees became. This was a problem, because it got difficult to find a tree that was easy to climb and had suitable branches to sleep in.

Though Beah wrote these lines as an adult (he apparently started work on the book while studying at Oberlin College), to my eye he's quite good at capturing the way a child might experience life in complete isolation in the jungle. (Not that I've been there or done that!)

I think Beah should consider trying his hand at fiction for the next book.

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