By Ishmael Beah
A Long Way Gone is the gripping first book by child rights advocate Ishmael Beah; it retells his experiences as a boy growing up in Sierra Leone in the 1990's, during one of the most brutal and violent civil wars in recent history. Beah, a boy as equally thrilled by causing mischief as he is by memorizing passages from Shakespeare and dance moves from hip hop videos, is a typical precocious twelve year old. But rebel forces destroy his childhood innocence when they hit his village, driving Beah to leave his home and travel the arid deserts and jungles of Africa. After several months of struggle the national army recruits Beah; he's made a full soldier and his new training teaches him to shoot an AK-47 and hate everyone who comes up against them.
This first two thirds of the memoir are frightening, watching how easy it is for a normal boy to transform into someone as addicted to killing as he is to the cocaine the army makes readily available. Peering so unflinchingly at the bloody horrors of warfare and what it does to children echoes many of the thoughts of Elie Wiesel in his classic Night, the core difference being that Beah was a participant as well as a victim. Some of the more disturbing moments are not shooting or slitting people's throats, but them going back to watch movies like Rambo afterwards and joking about how many they could kill if they only had an RPG.
But there is an abrupt change a few years later when agents from the United Nations pull him out of the army and places him in a rehabilitation center. Anger and hate slowly fade away and we see the first glimmers of Beah's work as an advocate. My only real criticism of Beah's book is that I wish it spent more time exploring how he managed to escape his addiction to violence. Much of his recovery centers around a nurse who takes an interest in him and encourages him by sharing music and books. While I'm sure that's certainly part of the story, I came away feeling like we weren't being told everything. But considering Beah's target audience is mostly teens affected by violence, the level of depth is probably appropriate. Told in a conversational, accessible style this powerful record of the violence of war ends as a beacon to all teens experiencing violence around them by showing them that there are ways to survive other than adding to the violence.