I first heard of Ishmael Beah on Biblioglobal’s blog, who is also doing the Global reading challenge (Though she is way ahead of me, lol). I had happened to stumble across her blog, saw A Long Way Gone & knew that this was a story that I too wanted to read. (at the time I didn’t read her post about the book because I didn’t want to take the chance of ruining anything)
I have to admit that I came away from reading A Long Way Gone feeling uncomfortable & somewhat unsettled, but not for the right reasons. This should be a story which shocks the reader. A story that unsettles the reader because of what a horrible experience this must have been & I somehow feel that there should have been a bit of sadness (if not profound sadness) about what Beah & the other child soldiers went through. Only, that wasn’t it. That wasn’t why I was feeling unsettled & uncomfortable. This should have been a difficult, uncomfortable read, but it was far from that. I flew through A Long Way Gone & was pretty ambivalent about what I was reading.
Each evening while we were preparing dinner my OH would ask me how I was getting on with the book & I didn’t know what to tell him, how to explain what I was feeling. Only a few minutes ago I read Biblioglobal’s review of A Long Way Gone & was finally able to put a finger on it. She writes:
Unfortunately I’ve learned that there is some controversy over the accuracy of some parts of the book. From what I’ve read, there do seem to be valid doubts about certain aspects, in particular the length of time that Ishmael Beah was actually a child soldier. (The Village Voice has a good overview of the controversy. http://www.villagevoice.com/2008-03-18/news/boy-soldier/full) There are a lot of understandable reasons why he might have exaggerated or confused his story so I don’t want to pass judgement about it. It does make me sad though. The book would still be very powerful, even if he was a soldier for “only” a few months rather than two years, but the suspicion of such a major inaccuracy detracts from the book, at least for me.
I’ve since read the Village Voice’s article & it voices the same concerns I had about a lot of the book, but had been unable to articulate to my OH. For instance, why is there so much of the book dedicated to telling about Beah’s life before the rebels destroyed his village and after he was released by the Army, but so little time dedicated to the telling of his time as an actual soldier? The lack of dates to have a reference of time was another one. I found myself constantly wondering as I read the book how long things went on, when did this happen, when did that happen? There are virtually no dates mentioned so keeping track of the time-frame is impossible. To me this just didn’t sit well considering Beah claims to have a photographic memory & remembers everything with such clarity (even though he was high as a kite most of the time).
But the thing I found hardest to reconcile was the supposed actions of the UNICEF team at the Benin Home. Beah describes an incident where soon after his arrival at the camp another group of boys arrive & Beah & his comrades discover that they are boys who fought for the Rebel Army. A brawl ensues & several children are killed (some from each side, but with Beah’s group getting the better of the rebel boys) & Beah himself becomes wounded. I would think that an organisation as worldly as UNICEF would not be stupid enough to think it a good idea to take boys straight from the front, from opposite sides of the war & place them in the same rehabilitation camp? I can understand that they might well do that, but surely not straight from the beginning of the rehab process? Surely they were clever enough to see that this kind of violence was not only a possibility it was practically a given!
There are other things that didn’t quite sit right with me, like how does Beah remember everything when he openly admits that he was drugged up beyond all belief during the duration of his time in the war? How did Beah end up in the US? He talks about the busses, the money spent bribing officials to get as far as Conakry in Guinea, but by the time he arrived there he had little to know money & was sleeping on the ground in the Sierra Leonean Embassy there, after having entered Guinea illegally——–Beah even alludes to the fact that he knows that there will be trouble to pay for having entered illegally, but all of that is left out as the book ends on the night of his arrival in Conakry.
Overall, this is a book that I would still recommend people reading, as perhaps it can serve as an eye-opener to the atrocities which adults perpetrate against children in the name of war. I would however recommend that they not take the book as gospel.
Now, purely because of my doubts related to the book, I am giving it a 3 out of 5.