Monday, January 28, 2008

Ishmael Beah/A LONG WAY GONE

I could have sworn that someone else had already posted on here about this title, but I can't seem to find it now. Did I just imagine this somehow? Is there another book on child soldiers someone has discussed here?

(And, talking of other reviewers, where is everyone?? I can't believe that I am putting back-to-back posts up here - more than a week apart. Has everyone been too busy with Moonrat's literary competition? Or with catching up at work after the holidays? Or....?)

A Long Way Gone is an autobiographical memoir by Ishmael Beah about his experiences during the Sierra Leone civil war in the 1990s. When his village was attacked by rebel forces, he became separated from his family - at the age of just 12 - and spent the better part of a year forlornly wandering the countryside with a small group of other lost boys, barely warding off starvation and frequently facing suspicion, hostility, and even threats of execution from many of the villagers they encountered (who were mostly terrified that they might be the notoriously ruthless boy soldiers the rebels often used). Eventually they come to a village occupied by a squad of soldiers from the Sierra Leone Army, which appears to be their salvation. However, bitter fighting with the rebels is raging around the village, and the commander trains the boys to join his troops. Moreover, despite his protestations to the contrary, it soon becomes clear that this commander is using much the same tactics as the rebels, not only in making use of boy soldiers (most of whom are, like Ishmael, only in their early teens, and a couple of them even younger) but in the indiscriminate extermination of whole villages to deny refuge and resources to the other side. Ishmael and his friends, traumatized by the horrors they have seen perpetrated by the rebels and blaming them also for the presumed deaths of their families (although they never in fact find out what has finally happened to them), are easily indoctrinated into becoming merciless killers for the Army.

His two-year spell as a soldier is passed over relatively quickly - although some of the most brutal incidents from his experience then are prefigured in the early stages of the book or recounted in flashbacks in the final section. Oddly enough, I found the parts dealing with his wandering alone in the jungle at the beginning of his ordeal and the later period he spent in a UN rehabilitation centre much more compelling.

Ishmael Beah is clearly - and was, even as a child - an exceptionally intelligent and sensitive person; and his writing is quite impressive for a non-native speaker of English. However, I think this is a book to be recommended for its subject matter rather than brilliant literary style. The simplicity of expression becomes a little bit plodding at times; and there are a number of occasions where nuances of custom or gesture are insufficiently explained, or where snippets of patois are left frustratingly untranslated. There are also a few downright oddities of language, especially where he is trying to describe the physical sensations created by emotional states: phrases like "my veins tightened" or "my bones turned sour" may be striving for an imprecise, poetic evocativeness, but I'm afraid they just don't really mean anything to me. And he does repeatedly talk about "tapping" people on the shoulder when I think he means "patting" (Editor??). Nevertheless, this relatively unadorned style does help to create the sense of a child's viewpoint and reinforces the tale's authenticity.

I wouldn't say this was by any means a great book, but it is a heart-breaking story and an important topic - well worth a few hours of your time.


moonrat said...

i know you're in china and might not have to read about all this every minute of everyday, but right now he's taking a lot of flack for fudging dates--apparently, some of the battles he talks about took place when he was older than he implied.

i don't think that's the point, really. it's kind of too bad it had to all come out. but.

yeah, i haven't done a report in ages... i've been reading like crazy, but they're all books my company publishes and i don't want to function like a one-woman PR machine.

Church Lady said...

I haven't seen that Moonrat. Pity, really. I saw him on a news show about 6 months ago, I think.

I remembered having questions about how he went from a war-torn third world country to writing a book in English. I want to read this book, however.

Great review. And I happen to like those expressions which annoy you (sorry). They are so typical of someone who speaks English as a Second Language. I think some of them are nearly poetic. Like "my veins tightened." I get that.

Froog said...

Yes, I want to get them too, Church Lady. But I think they're repeated too often, and they just don't somehow come off.

angelle said...

i wrote about this book froog...

anyway, i liked this book. i dont think you read this kind of book for language anyway. somehow he gets the sentiment across without needing precise language.

ok i have other things to say but im crunched at work. later!

Froog said...

Aha! I didn't think I could have just imagined the previous review! But it's not listed in the sidebar. Did you delete the post, or did you forget to tag the author and title?

Froog said...

I will have to root around on the Internet to have a look at some of these stories about him, MR. I am surprised by them, though. I wouldn't have thought there was any room for doubt about the overall timeline. He is necessarily vague about dates and places (because he was a kid, with no way of keeping track of what day it was; and no maps, no signposts, so he rarely knew the names of the villages he was passing through); and there were no major 'battles', just an endless round of skirmishing in the bush. This kind of fighting certainly was going on through the early mid-90s, but I doubt if many detailed records were kept of individual engagements, of which villages were destroyed when - it would be next-to-impossible, I think, to relate any of the war experiences recounted in the book to independently verifiable events in the history of the war. I would have thought his entry into the UN rehabilitation programme (and the subsequent short period when he was living with an uncle in Freetown) could be verified and dated quite easily. The only scope, then, that I can see for any inaccuracy on dates is during the period of anarchy in Freetown, when he mentions major - dateable - events like the opening of the prison and a massacre of peace protesters.

If there are questions about his age when he was a soldier, they must surely rest - given that the timeline is anchored by his period in rehab and then his escape from Freetown - on whether he has misrepresented his birthday.

Quibbles about dates and locations must, I think, be largely speculative - since Beah himself has rarely specified any such details. Unless people are suggesting that his entire account is fabricated, these seem to me like very petty criticisms.

angelle said...

hmm.. i must have forgotten to take it!

angelle said...

hmm strange. i defintiely wrote about it on my own site.. i could have sworn it wrote it on here too. im so confused.