Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah

I don't even know where to start.

I just finished this. I'm a little late to the game--it came out in 2007 to quite a bit of critical fanfare--but if you saw my TBR pile, you'd understand why it took me so long. It's the true story of Ishmael Beah, a young man from Sierra Leone, who, at age 12, saw his country torn apart by war. Rebels destroyed his home when he happened to be gone, so he and those friends he was with at the time, began their long journey in an attempt to stay alive. They eventually have no choice but to join up with the government army, and the peaceful Beah is turned into a killer.

The story doesn't stop there. Beah is chosen for rehabilitation, at which point he's forced to overcome the addictions the government fostered as well as all the violence he's wreaked. But see, the thing of it is, the tone of this book is straightforward and unapologetic. Beah just tells things like they were, without asking for pity and forgiveness. His is the story of a boy who did what he needed to survive.

It's all the more harrowing for that honesty.

Don't think that it lingers on his time as a soldier. It takes a good half of the book to get to that point. We meet the boy first. We go with him as he runs and runs and runs and starves and watches his friends die, so that by the time he joins the army, we're as desperate as he is. We can understand the need for order that he finds. But just as we're reaching the point of overload for his soldier life, he's rescued from it, at which point we follow along his rehabilitation journey.

It's as uplifting as it is discouraging, the latter because it seems so unfathomable for those of us outside of these war-torn countries to truly appreciate the desperation they face, the former because Beah is proof there is always hope.

If you haven't read it, and if you can tolerate graphic imagery, I can't recommend this enough.

And if I can't convince you, maybe watching Ishmael talk to Jon Stewart can.