There is no possible way for me or you, the readers, to walk in the footsteps of Ishmael Beah in A Long Way Gone. His young life quickly filled with such terrible atrocities that some descriptions of the book are hard to read. These heinous scourges occurred in the Sierra Leone during the 1980s by rebel troops during that country’s Civil War.
As the story begins, twelve-year-old Ish has in his possession several CDs which he tries to play whenever possible. He likes the beat of the hip-hop American music and loves to emulate the clever rhymes of the rappers, even though there are many words he does not understand. When given the chance, he and his friends practice the clever angular, muscular routines of dancers who move in sync with the hard-pounding music on videos they’ve seen.
Ish and his friends start out for Mattru Jong, hoping to take part in a talent show to exhibit their practiced rap language and dance moves. The journey will take several days on foot, nevertheless, the small troupe heads southeast. When they reach Ish’s Grandmother’s village, they refuse to stay with her and continue on. Arriving at another village, they find people terrified by news that the rebels are coming.
Ish and his friends hear the tales of horror told by refugees coming from the west—coming from Ish’s home village area. These rebels, they learn, kill for sport. They want to take over the land—more than anything, they want to be feared by all so that any spoils found in the villages they’ve plundered belong to them. Ish learns that his family has been murdered.
As the boys attempt to stay one village ahead of the thrill-killer rebels, they become separated while running for their lives and hiding anywhere that seems safe. It isn’t long before Ish finds himself alone in what he thinks is a wooded area near a remote village.
During the night, the village has been surrounded by government troops who have a kill-crazy attitude toward against rebels. Ish begins to run, hiding when he can. But escape is impossible. He is running into the center of a huge circle, not away from it’s outer edge. Alone, captured and humiliated, Ish has a choice to make. He must carry a gun and kill, or be killed on the spot. There are no other alternatives.
Slowly Ish’s boy brain becomes brutalized by what he sees done to those they capture. In order to survive, in order to stop running, in order to be fed and protected by the government troops, Ish emulates the older men who have taken his young brain hostage. If they kill, Ish must kill. If they torture, Ish must take part. The army has sapped his brain. He is no longer a young lad interested in rap music and clever dance moves. No, he is Ish an army killer.
You cannot read this book without a sense of horror as you learn of the murders and horrendous act of violence committed against villagers by both sides in this Civil War. Ish is one of these army militiamen. But the reader cannot come away from A Long Way Gone without a strong sense of how far Ish has deterioriated. Is he really a killer, or has what he witnessed and personally done so strangled his brain that he can no longer think for himself. Truly, this youngster is A Long Way Gone.
Needless to say, this book will tear at your heartstrings. What happens to Ish? Does he remain a killer? Does he ever regain a sense of civil decency that was stolen from him? Can he ever face his own conscience for what he has done? This short book is a must read for all of us who sit back in relative ease, in safety, in our homes, while young people are raped of their humanity in distant countries. How lucky we are!
I would highly recommend this book as a must read in this country’s high schools where young men and women can initially identify with Ish and his love of music, but must make their own choices with him as he falls prey to army thugs. The book will ensure great classroom discussion about common sense, common decency, and the terrible ordeals young people are suffering. I would give this book my highest 5-star recommendation.