Ishmael Beah

A Long Way Gone

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A Long Way Gone Summary

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A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah is a memoir that takes place in Sierra Leone. The memoir deals with the author’s experiences as a child soldier after an invasion by the rebel army. The book begins with Ishmael as a young child. Like many young children, war wasn’t his concern. He wasn’t unaware that war existed in the area, and writes about seeing refugees move through his village. However, his focus was centered primarily on hip hop. He and his brother, Junior, danced with a group of friends in Mattru Jong, which was sixteen miles away from his home village.

While in Mattru Jong, Ishmael’s home village falls under attack. His family vanishes, and he and his friends are left to fend for themselves. The need for food pits them against one another. Before they could work together to find their missing families, they are captured by the rebel army. The rebels separate them, but Ishmael and his friends manage to escape and flee into the woods. The war has made it impossible for people to trust each other, and rumors abound about a group of boys causing trouble, Ishmael and his friends have no one to turn to for help.

They are captured and questioned, but once their interrogators learn that they are not a threat –after finding a hip hop tape on Ishmael’s person – the boys are released. They learn that some of their relatives are in a village about thirty miles away. After the village they’re staying in is burned, they leave to find those relatives. They reach the Atlantic Ocean, and enjoy the beach. This is a chance for the author to show their innocence, fleeting though it may be like the tides of the ocean. They keep moving until they find the village where their relatives are supposedly living, but they are captured and interrogated again. Their shoes are stolen, and then they are forced to leave the village.

Barefoot, they traveled on even though the heat burned the skin on their feet. They seek refuge with a fisherman who helps them, but his help is cut short when the villagers discover their location. Once more, Ishmael’s hip hop tape convinces them that he and his friends pose no danger, and they are released. They leave again after learning that Ishmael’s relatives moved on to a village that is only a two-day walk away. When they reach the village, a man stops them and asks them to help him collect bananas. Ishmael recognizes the man and so the boys decide to help.

While they are out collecting the bananas, the village falls under attack and everyone in the village dies. Ishmael and his friends traveled all that way to see his family, and they never get to meet up with them. He and his friends move on to another village, where they find a group of boys orphaned by the war. There are more than thirty of them. They were kept there, trained to fight there, and given drugs there that would provide them with energy while desensitizing them to the violence of war. They were forced to fight against the rebel army.

At the age of sixteen, Ishmael was told to get into a vehicle. That vehicle took him to a city, where he and other child soldiers were rehabilitated. They underwent detox for the drugs they’d been forced to take. They had to learn how to live as children again. Ishmael managed to do these things, and became a spokesperson, representing the children of Sierra Leone and the rehabilitation center that saved him to the United Nations.

In addition to the theme of the trials faced by the child soldier, the theme of storytelling through music is a prominent one in A Long Way Gone. Ishmael reflects on his grandfather’s stories, and then tells his own through this memoir. Several times over the course of his trials, he and his friends are saved by music, symbolized by the hip hop tape he carries with him that proves to villagers and interrogators that Ishmael and his friends are not a threat.

Beah’s memoir received a 2007 nomination for the Quill Award, in the best debut author category. A Long Way Gone was also named in the Time magazine’s Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2007. Ishmael Beah also wrote a novel titled Radiance of Tomorrow, which was published in 2014. There has been some controversy raised regarding the timeline presented in A Long Way Gone, which would change Beah’s story to having been a child soldier for months instead of years, but Beah defended his account as written in his memoir. In addition to working as a writer, he is also a human rights activist. While Beah lives now in the United States, he frequently visits Sierra Leone, which is no longer under threat of clashing armies.