Readers’ literary escape: Ishmael Beah emulates strength

Alex Sharp, co-Features Editor

When I was little, I used to read action stories and then try to imagine myself in the character’s shoes. I would ask myself if I could be brave like them; if I could survive. And I like to think that I would always surpass everyone’s expectations of me and succeed. But then I read A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah. As I was reading, I felt as if I was with Beah on his adventures, and, when I finished, I was happy to return to my safe reality. This time, I didn’t need to wonder if I could be brave like him; instead, I knew that he was stronger than I could ever be.

A Long Way Gone is an intriguing narrative telling the story of Ishmael Beah, a 12-year-old boy living in Sierra Leone during its destructive civil war between the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the Sierra Leone army. The author brings the reader through a long, treacherous journey as he relives his attempts to flee the RUF rebel forces, stay alive as a child soldier in the Sierra Leone army and cope with a new life full of grief and anger. As the memoir’s official website says, “[It’s] a child’s journey through hell and back.”

What makes this book different from all others is the way it invites the reader into its pages. I was sucked into the story, watching it unfold as if I were in the midst of it. As Beah draws the reader into his past, with the occasional insertion of present day, I felt uniquely connected to his struggles.

No, I am not a refugee or fighting in the army, but I am a kid. As much as I like to pretend I’m independent, I rely heavily on my family for all the basic essentials of survival and more. While Beah never had this opportunity, the memoir still gives a strong appeal to innocence and the frailty of it as the reader watches him grow year after year. I was drawn to Beah’s struggle towards adulthood as he fears losing his childhood, yet is eager to show his maturity. For me, the book’s relatability to young-adult life is why I was entranced by it.

Besides the plot itself being fascinating, every page’s story is horrifying, beautiful, discouraging and hopeful. It is in Beah’s sometimes simplistic, yet exquisite writing that I found myself wanting to turn to the next page before even learning what had happened on the one I was on. It is a page-turner like no other. When I thought nothing could get worse, it did. But, on the opposing side, when everything seemed hopeless, Beah showed a small ray of hope in the distance.

Now, I know that A Long Way Gone is taught in the English curriculum, which for many people might be a turn-off. After all, who wants to read an “educational” book for fun? But this book is different than Shakespeare and Sophocles. If you want to, you can look at the word choice and syntax to find interesting style decisions and act as the critical reader every teacher wishes their students would be. But just as easily, you can sit back and read it as a memoir that will keep you intrigued for hours.

A Long Way Gone is not without its flaws. Although I saw few negatives, there is one part of the book that bothers me tremendously: the title. Ishmael Beah, and the editors he worked with, decided on the subheading of the book to be Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. While technically he was a soldier for the Sierra Leone army, that section of the book is a very small portion. Instead, the novel focuses on his search for safety, whether as a soldier, a refugee or just a boy struggling with his past. Although this flaw did not affect the way I view the book as a whole, it did shift my attention while reading. I felt as if I was always waiting for his soldier lifestyle, and when it came, it was too short to be considered the center of the book’s attention.

Besides the slight flaw in the title, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier is truly a remarkable book.  It is both humorous yet depressing, straight-forward yet complex. I was reminded of how evil a person can be and how that same person can be compassionate if someone only gave them a second chance. This memoir is definitely not the action-packed adventure I expected, but it is the story that will always remind me  of true strength and bravery.