I am usually amazed by memoirs. I understand the desire to write a memoir. I just don’t understand why the author of many memoirs thinks that anyone would would find their life interesting. A Long Way Gone: Memories of a Boy Soldier is different. I wanted to read it to see what it might be like to be a boy soldier. And I was treated to wonderful writing. The memoir begins in Ishmael Beah’s village as he goes with friends to a nearby town to participate in a talent show. While they are in the town, they learn that their village has been attacked by rebels, the RUF and that everyone in the village has either been killed or fled.
The memoir divides into three parts: running from the civil war which has engulfed this part of Sierra Leone, Beah’s life as a boy soldier, and his rehabilitation. I was dreading the description of life as a boy soldier, but it was short and bare of too many horrifying details. I assume because Beah himself may not remember much. The soldiers were high for most of the time: high to deaden the physical pain of wounds and high to deaden the emotional pain of what they were doing.
Beah’s rehabilitation is a story of redemption and the power of love to enter the most defiant heart. As Beah is given back his childhood, he doesn’t want it. He wants to remain the fear-inspiring boy soldier he has become. He misses the power he had over civilians to make them cower in his presence.
The story gives us a glimpse not just into life as a boy soldier, but life as a boy growing up in Sierra Leone. Beah is a boy who loves rap and fills his pockets with cassettes by LL Cool J, Run-D.M.C, Heavy D and the Boyz. He is a boy who can quote soliloquies from Shakespeare. He is a boy who had never seen the ocean or a large city until war comes close.
Before the paperback edition was published, reporters from The Australian attacked the veracity of the memoir. First, they found a man believed to be Beah’s father (who Beah claimed was killed in the fighting). This man turned out to be a distant relative, not Beah’s father. They challenged the time line of the memoir and various details. Beah and his publisher have steadfastly maintained the accuracy of the memoir.
Memoirs always contain fiction—departures from the cold, hard facts. Human memory is a chimera. We see what we want to see; we feel what we want to feel. Ask two siblings about an event in their past. They will probably have two very different memories of it. Eye witness accounts are often wrong in major facts and minor details. I believe Beah’s story is his story and not an intentional falsification. I wouldn’t be surprised to find it was, either.--Joan Calvin