Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Book Review - A Long Way Gone

Several years ago we saw Ishmael Beah give an interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. As frequently happens when we see Jon Stewart give an interview with the author of a newly released book, our interest was piqued. And again, as frequently happens when a book piques our interest, my husband read the book and I didn't. When I made my goals for 2014 I publicly promised myself I would read more for fun, or at least for personal gain, in an attempt to get away from my terrible habit of just reading for professional and academic purposes. And while A Long Way Gone is a title on my extensive AP reading list, it is also a book that I wanted to read. So when my reading for the 2013-2014 school year was complete, I finally picked it off of the shelf and began reading.

Beah's book recounts his experiences growing up during the war in Sierra Leone, including the couple of years that he served in the government army as a child soldier. His heartbreaking account of separation from his friends, family, and childhood opened my eyes to events that were happening on the other side of the world while I was navigating new hallways my freshman year of high school. He opens with a simple yet telling sentence: "My high school friends have begun to suspect that I haven't told them the fully story of my life." He goes on to show the disconnect between us Americans and those who have lived through and participated in their country's wars. His friends ask "You mean you saw people running around with guns and shooting each other?" When he responds "Yes, all the time," they respond with "Cool."

His experience was far from cool.

By the end of the first chapter, the war has changed Beah's life forever. He has been separated from his parents and is running from rebels with only the clothes on his back and tape cassettes of popular 90s rap artists. His love for Naughty by Nature, LL Cool J, and Run-DMC initially saves his life on a couple occasions, as he and his friends are able to prove to frightened villagers that they encounter that they are not a part of the rebel army. He travels up the western coast of Sierra Leone with his small group of friends, which for awhile includes his brother, and they manage to escape the rebel army for quite awhile. But then they are found by the government army. While their physical lives might be temporarily saved, their emotional and psychological lives are destroyed. Soldiers feed them a steady stream of cocaine, marijuana, and "brown brown," a mix of powdered cocaine and gunpowder. They show them violent movies (including a lot of Rambo) and convince them that every act of violence is justifiable revenge for what has happened to their families. Beah goes down a dark path from which he sees no escape. Even I, as a reader, was unsure of his escape, although I knew he had to escape because he survived to write a book about it.

When he is fifteen, UNICEF workers show up in the middle of the fighting to take a group of boy soldiers with them. Beah never reveals what made his commanders hand over the brainwashed boys, but he was one of those selected for rehabilitation. For the next several months, UNICEF workers, and those from related organizations, patiently work with boys from both the government and rebel armies as they slowly withdraw from the drugs and violence to which they have become accustomed. The boys are physically and emotionally abusive to workers who consistently respond to their behavior with "It's not your fault." I have worked with teenagers for my entire career. I love them and have no desire to give it up. But I do not know how these men and women continued to show physical and emotional support for boys who abused them back at every turn. Their love and determination was almost as inspirational as Beah's survival. But freedom from the fighting is nearly impossible, and by the end of the book I was shocked that he made it out of his country alive. Now an American immigrant, his story of survival is both heartbreaking, shocking, and full of hope for those children who are still stuck in war torn areas around the globe.

It is strange to read books written by someone your own age as they recount events that happened to them in a completely different area of the world. I was a typical American teenager, more concerned with boys and school than I was in the suffering of fellow teenagers around the globe. Sierra Leone was far off my radar and probably still would have been had I not read Beah's book. The book made me angry. Angry at rebels who felt that the best way to achieve their goals was to kill anyone and everyone who might stand in their way. Angry at a government army that felt that the best way to achieve its goals was to kill anyone and everyone who might stand in its way. Angry at a government that allowed the murder of everyone and anyone who might stand in its way. And angry at a world that just stood by and let it happen. But that I know that isn't fair. Sin has caused wars for thousands of years. I don't understand what could possess people to act as they did in Sierra Leone and as they are currently acting in every war torn country around the world at this very moment. To read this book as fighting continues to break out across the Middle East opened my adult eyes to the world that my children are growing up in, but it also brought home the fact that these "new" conflicts are not new. In our sinful world there will always be fighting, and while I have no idea how to protect children around the world from facing the same fate as Ishmael Beah, my hope and prayer is that stories like his will not just raise awareness but change that will at the very least prevent more children from facing the same fate.

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