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

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Beah, Ishmael. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of  a Boy Soldier. New York: Sarah Crighton Books, 2007. 229.
                Billowing from the engine are two trails of steam.  The sound of metal grating against itself fills the air.  In silence, you watch as the great mass of machinery collides with its fellow being in a demolishment of steel.  As a bystander you are powerless but to feel remorse for those aboard.  As the debris and smoke clears disbelief gently takes the hand of your remorse, and you blink rapidly as though the movement of your eyelids can dissolve the scene before you.  Though the evidence is splayed openly in front of you, you find it hard to believe what you have just seen.  Reading Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier,  is an experience much like that of witnessing a train wreck.  You cannot take your eyes from it because even though you know you should, so as to save yourself the horror of such a reality, a part of you hungers to witness the outcome. And much like a train wreck in the end you find it difficult to believe what you’ve witnessed. “Terror such as the terror depicted in this novel can only be a product of fiction,” says your mind.  In the safe and secure life of the average American you rarely realize or acknowledge the pain that festers in the more underdeveloped regions of the globe.  The type of pain that destroys lives and mangles childhoods.  Fortunately, A Long Way Gone is that realization.
                As its title states A Long Way Gone is a memoir written by a man who for three years served as a soldier in a war that dismantled not only his country but his family and ultimately his life.  At the age of twelve Ishmael fled his village in the southwestern region of Sierra Leone, to escape the oncoming militia of rebels.  At first, he is able to evade the war, wandering in the jungles and rural areas of the country.  But by the time of his thirteenth birthday he had been recruited by the government army.  In this novel Beah describes his experience as a child soldier, where wielding an AK-47 and living with and addiction to drugs becomes nothing out of the ordinary.  From one unthinkable act of violence to another A Long Way Gone brings to light the sufferings and responsibilities of child soldiers.  One will find it impossible to emerge from the pages of this book without having shed some tears.

Surely the most swaying piece of his writing (besides the heinous content), is Beah’s ability to describe his experiences so plainly.  He writes as though he were informing one of the latest newsbreak, but in an endearing and tug-at-your-heart-strings way.  Unlike many modern authors he abstains from dressing down his chapters with flowery metaphors or overly detailed descriptions that too often end up tiring the reader.  He tells the story as it is, treating every aspect as nothing more than the truth, a truth he wants everyone to grasp clearly and simply.  But what makes his writing truly moving is how he explains the evils of his childhood as though they were “no big deal”, describing it much like one would the weather.  I find that this frankness of writing is what convinces the reader of the reality Beah describes. He is humble rather than melodramatic in a story that is the epitome of drama, and somehow it is so much more touching. I knew as I read this that only someone who had witnessed firsthand such affairs could write about them with such simplicity.  And not all the sophisticated wording and flamboyant analogies in the world could have impacted me the way his modest recollections did. 
                In addition to his unornamented writing, Beah infuses his story with true emotion.  When he is recalling an instance of remorse, the reader feels remorse.  If Beah is describing his drug addiction in terms of having no other choice, the reader feels as though they have no other choice. For many this may seem not at all unusual, readers become attached to characters all the time, but how often are those characters products of the real world? Technically A Long Way Gone is a non-fiction piece of literature, as it is a memoir but within the first ten pages of the book you discover yourself lapsing into the mindset of reading a fictional story, so skillfully does Beah describe his ordeals. And you will be forced to ask yourself the question: does evil such as this really exist? The answer of course lies in Beah’s own story.

It is a true literary miracle, the lengths to which Beah can affect his readers through the work of non-fiction.  As a reader you cannot help but be awed by him.  Knowing that even after living in the hell that was his life, he can come out the other side of it and share his story with others is remarkable.  When reading this memoir many a times did I find my mouth hanging open and tears on my cheeks.  Never has a book touched me so deeply as A Long Way Gone.  And when I turned the final page I had no choice but to take a mental step back and compare my own life to that of Beah’s.  Suddenly me not getting that new pair of shoes didn’t feel so bad anymore.  Anyone who is unhappy with their life, whether they find it to be inadequate, depressing, or downright horrid, should be required to read this book.  So that they too may realize the good fortune they have.  Good books are hard to come by these days what with the plethora of authors and publishing companies.  But when some ink, a couple pieces of paper and binding make you feel so fortuitous of your life, you know you have stumbled upon a truly miraculous exposition.  Such is A Long Way Gone.     





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