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

Published: 2007-02-13
Hardcover : 240 pages
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36 clubs reading this now
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Recommended to book clubs by 6 of 6 members
My new friends have begun to suspect I haven’t told them the full story of my life.
“Why did you leave Sierra Leone?”
“Because there is a war.”
“You mean, you saw people running around with guns and shooting each other?”
“Yes, all the time.”
I smile a little.
“You ...
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My new friends have begun to suspect I haven’t told them the full story of my life.
“Why did you leave Sierra Leone?”
“Because there is a war.”
“You mean, you saw people running around with guns and shooting each other?”
“Yes, all the time.”
I smile a little.
“You should tell us about it sometime.”
“Yes, sometime.”

This is how wars are fought now: by children, hopped-up on drugs and wielding AK-47s. Children have become soldiers of choice. In the more than fifty conflicts going on worldwide, it is estimated that there are some 300,000 child soldiers. Ishmael Beah used to be one of them.

What is war like through the eyes of a child soldier? How does one become a killer? How does one stop? Child soldiers have been profiled by journalists, and novelists have struggled to imagine their lives. But until now, there has not been a first-person account from someone who came through this hell and survived.

In A Long Way Gone, Beah, now twenty-five years old, tells a riveting story: how at the age of twelve, he fled attacking rebels and wandered a land rendered unrecognizable by violence. By thirteen, he’d been picked up by the government army, and Beah, at heart a gentle boy, found that he was capable of truly terrible acts.
This is a rare and mesmerizing account, told with real literary force and heartbreaking honesty.

Editorial Review

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Chapter One
There were all kinds of stories told about the war that made it sound as if it was
happening in a faraway and different land. It wasn’t until refugees started passing through
our town that we began to see that it was actually taking place in our country. Families
who had walked hundreds of miles told how relatives had been killed and their houses
burned. Some people felt sorry for them and offered them places to stay, but most of the
refugees refused, because they said the war would eventually reach our town. The
children of these families wouldn’t look at us, and they jumped at the sound of chopping
wood or as stones landed on the tin roofs flung by children hunting birds with slingshots.
The adults among these children from the war zones would be lost in their thoughts
during conversations with the elders of my town. Apart from their fatigue and
malnourishment, it was evident they had seen something that plagued their minds,
something that we would refuse to accept if they told us all of it. At times I thought that
some of the stories the passersby told were exaggerated. The only wars I knew of were
those that I had read about in books or seen in movies such as Rambo: First Blood, and
the one in neighboring Liberia that I had heard about on the BBC news. My imagination
at ten years old didn’t have the capacity to grasp what had taken away the happiness of
the refugees.

The first time that I was touched by war I was twelve. It was in January of 1993. I left
home with Junior, my older brother, and our friend Talloi, both a year older than I, to go
to the town of Mattru Jong, to participate in our friends’ talent show. Mohamed, my best
friend, couldn’t come because he and his father were renovating their thatched-roof
kitchen that day. The four of us had started a rap and dance group when I was eight. We
were first introduced to rap music during one of our visits to Mobimbi, a quarter where
the foreigners who worked for the same American company as my father lived. We often
went to Mobimbi to swim in a pool and watch the huge color television and the white
people who crowded the visitors’ recreational area. One evening a music video that
consisted of a bunch of young black fellows talking really fast came on the television.
The four of us sat there mesmerized by the song, trying to understand what the black
fellows were saying. At the end of the video, some letters came up at the bottom of the
screen. They read “Sugarhill Gang, ‘Rapper’s Delight.’” Junior quickly wrote it down on
a piece of paper. After that, we came to the quarters every other weekend to study that
kind of music on television. We didn’t know what it was called then, but I was impressed
with the fact that the black fellows knew how to speak English really fast, and to the beat.

Later on, when Junior went to secondary school, he befriended some boys who
taught him more about foreign music and dance. During holidays, he brought me
cassettes and taught my friends and me how to dance to what we came to know as hiphop.
I loved the dance, and particularly enjoyed learning the lyrics, because they were
poetic and it improved my vocabulary. One afternoon, Father came home while Junior,
Mohamed, Talloi, and I were learning the verse of “I Know You Got Soul” by Eric B. &
Rakim. He stood by the door of our clay brick and tin roof house laughing and then
asked, “Can you even understand what you are saying?” He left before Junior could
answer. He sat in a hammock under the shade of the mango, guava, and orange trees and
tuned his radio to the BBC news.

“Now, this is good English, the kind that you should be listening to,” he shouted from the yard.

While Father listened to the news, Junior taught us how to move our feet to the
beat. We alternately moved our right and then our left feet to the front and back, and
simultaneously did the same with our arms, shaking our upper bodies and heads. “This
move is called the running man,” Junior said. Afterward, we would practice miming the
rap songs we had memorized. Before we parted to carry out our various evening chores of fetching water and cleaning lamps, we would say “Peace, son” or “I’m out,” phrases
we had picked up from the rap lyrics. Outside, the evening music of birds and crickets would commence.

On the morning that we left for Mattru Jong, we loaded our backpacks with notebooks of
lyrics we were working on and stuffed our pockets with cassettes of rap albums. In those
days we wore baggy jeans, and underneath them we had soccer shorts and sweatpants for
dancing. Under our long-sleeved shirts we had sleeveless undershirts, T-shirts, and soccer
jerseys. We wore three pairs of socks that we pulled down and folded to make our
crapes* look puffy. When it got too hot in the day, we took some of the clothes off and
carried them on our shoulders. They were fashionable, and we had no idea that this unusual way of dressing was going to benefit us. Since we intended to return the next
day, we didn’t say goodbye or tell anyone where we were going. We didn’t know that we were leaving home, never to return.

To save money, we decided to walk the sixteen miles to Mattru Jong. It was a
beautiful summer day, the sun wasn’t too hot, and the walk didn’t feel long either, as we
chatted about all kinds of things, mocked and chased each other. We carried slingshots
that we used to stone birds and chase the monkeys that tried to cross the main dirt road.
We stopped at several rivers to swim. At one river that had a bridge across it, we heard a
passenger vehicle in the distance and decided to get out of the water and see if we could
catch a free ride. I got out before Junior and Talloi, and ran across the bridge with their
clothes. They thought they could catch up with me before the vehicle reached the bridge,
but upon realizing that it was impossible, they started running back to the river, and just
when they were in the middle of the bridge, the vehicle caught up to them. The girls in
the truck laughed and the driver tapped his horn. It was funny, and for the rest of the trip
they tried to get me back for what I had done, but they failed.

We arrived at Kabati, my grandmother’s village, around two in the afternoon.
Mamie Kpana was the name that my grandmother was known by. She was tall and her
perfectly long face complemented her beautiful cheekbones and big brown eyes. She
always stood with her hands either on her hips or on her head. By looking at her, I could
see where my mother had gotten her beautiful dark skin, extremely white teeth, and the translucent creases on her neck. My grandfather or kamor—teacher, as everyone called
him—was a well-known local Arabic scholar and healer in the village and beyond.

At Kabati, we ate, rested a bit, and started the last six miles. Grandmother wanted us to spend the night, but we told her that we would be back the following day.

“How is that father of yours treating you these days?” she asked in a sweet voice that was laden with worry.

“Why are you going to Mattru Jong, if not for school? And why do you look so skinny?” she continued asking, but we evaded her questions. She followed us to the edge
of the village and watched as we descended the hill, switching her walking stick to her left hand so that she could wave us off with her right hand, a sign of good luck.

We arrived in Mattru Jong a couple of hours later and met up with old friends, Gibrilla,
Kaloko, and Khalilou. That night we went out to Bo Road, where street vendors sold food
late into the night. We bought boiled groundnut and ate it as we conversed about what we
were going to do the next day, made plans to see the space for the talent show and
practice. We stayed in the verandah room of Khalilou’s house. The room was small and
had a tiny bed, so the four of us (Gibrilla and Kaloko went back to their houses) slept in the same bed, lying across with our feet hanging. I was able to fold my feet in a little more since I was shorter and smaller than all the other boys. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

From the Publisher:

1. How familiar were you with the civil wars of Sierra Leone prior to reading A Long Way Gone? How has Ishmael’s story changed your perception of this history, and of current wars in general?

2. Chapter seven begins with the story of the imam’s death, followed by Ishmael’s recollections of his father and an elder blessing their home when they first moved to
Mogbwemo. How do the concepts of faith and hope shift throughout this memoir? What sustains Ishmael emotionally and spiritually?

3. Chapter eight closes with the image of villagers running fearfully from Ishmael and his friends, believing that the seven boys are rebels. How do they overcome
these negative assumptions in communities that have begun to associate the boys’ appearance with evil? What lessons could world leaders learn from them about overcoming distrust, and the importance of judging others individually rather than as stereotypes?

4. What did Ishmael’s parents teach him about being a man? How did he define manhood once he began his long walk west? What general life lessons were his parents able to teach him that sustained him during his brutal passage from boyhood, and that he carries with him to this day?

5. Discuss the role of American hip-hop culture in creating a “soundtrack” for Ishmael’s life. Why are rappers so appealing to him?

6. The boys’ discovery of the Atlantic Ocean and their encounter with a cheerful fisherman who heals and feeds them is followed by the tragedy of Saidu’s death after a bird falls ominously from the sky. Discuss Ishmael’s relationship with the natural world. In what way is he guided by the constancy of the earth and sky?

7. When Ishmael arrives at the fortified village of Yele in chapter twelve, what do you discover about the way he began his military career? Was his service, and that
of his equally young friends, necessary? What made his conscription different from that of drafted American soldiers serving in previous wars?

8. Ishmael tells us that some of the boys who had been rehabilitated with him later became soldiers again. What factors ensured that he could remain a civilian?

9. Storytelling is a powerful force in Ishmael’s life, even providing a connection to his future mother, Laura Simms. What traits make Ishmael a memorable and unique storyteller? How does his perspective compare to the perspectives of filmmakers, reporters, or other authors who have recently tried to portray Africa’s civil wars?

10. Ishmael describes his use of Krio and many tribal languages to communicate, as well as his ability to quote Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English. What communities
and empires are represented in his many speech styles? In which “villages,” from the relatively new UN to the centuries-old Mende and Temne settlements, does the
greatest wisdom lie?

11. How does Ishmael’s concept of family change throughout the memoir, from his early life in Mattru Jong, to the uncle with whom he is reunited, to his American family with Laura?

12. It takes many weeks before Ishmael feels comfortable with the relief workers’ refrain that these events are not his fault. What destructive beliefs had he become addicted to? What states of deprivation and euphoria had his body become addicted to?

13. What universal truths does Ishmael teach us about surviving loss and hunger, and overcoming isolation?

14. Ishmael’s dramatic escape during the later waves of revolution concludes with the riddle of the monkey. Is his dream of obliterating the monkey—and its violent endgames—closer to being fulfilled in these early years of the twenty-first century? What would it take for all of humanity to adopt Ishmael’s rejection of vengeance?

15. Ishmael gives credit to relief workers such as Esther, in conjunction with organizations such as UNICEF, for rescuing him. He has dedicated his life to their cause, studying political science and speaking before a broad variety of groups, ranging from the Council on Foreign Relations to the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory. What steps has he inspired you to take to help end the use of child soldiers? How can each of us join Ishmael’s cause?

16. After reading the chronology of Sierra Leone’s history, what reasons can you propose for the coups in Ishmael’s homeland? Did the arrival of Portuguese slave traders, or the later colonization by the British, contribute to Sierra Leone’s twentiethcentury woes? What did you discover about the motivations of the army soldiers versus those of the rebels? In your opinion, what made the leaders of the RUF so ruthless for so long?

Suggested by Members

We still have 300.000 boy soldier to this day. How can we make their life better.????????
Would women leaders do things differently in this world????
by minouch (see profile) 05/19/09

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

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by Danielle F. (see profile) 08/21/18

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by Mallory G. (see profile) 09/15/15

  "A Long Way Gone"by Peggy J. (see profile) 07/22/14

I loved this book. That Ismael could live through what he experienced and become the wise, sensitive, loving person he is today is inspiring.

  "Long Way Gone"by Julie M. (see profile) 09/19/13

  "what he lived through is terrible and amazing at the same time"by Katrina B. (see profile) 08/10/10

  "Puts it into perspective"by Melissa H. (see profile) 12/08/09

An amazing life this young man has led. A difficult book to read simply b/c of the subject matter, but I think a necessary book. The author does a great job of laying out the facts, but not exaggerating... (read more)

  "Difficult to read, but glad I read it"by Rachel S. (see profile) 07/22/09

This book takes you out of your comfort zone! There were times I wanted to either quit reading or skip ahead a few chapters. Reading about boys being trained to kill, and being killed in the process, was... (read more)

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