Growing up in the safe confines of the middle-class womb here in the U.S., it is easy to lose sight of the larger world around me. While I count myself a student of history and a constant consumer of information, I tend to focus on specific periods of the past (World War II, the Crusades, the founding of the United States etc.) or on specific realms of the present (the intricacies of the war in Iraq or the convoluted meanderings of those seeking the Presidency). So, having heard an amazing interview on NPR, I was excited to pick up the copy of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah that Sarah had read for her book club.
Reading the book feels like you are sitting across from a friend in a coffee shop, or over a pint, learning about a past that is both intriguing and scary. The informality of the telling pulled me in quickly and made the environment that much more real, as it remained very personal throughout. He didn’t pull back to the 50,000 foot view to tell you the maneuvers of each side, or the political gambits played by the government and the rebel forces. Instead, he told you how he ran from the rebels and soldiers alike, how he eventually became a soldier at the age of thirteen, how he returned to what was left of his childhood a few years later, only to be forced to escape to a new life far different than he could have ever expected.
It is hard to reconcile the giant grin on Ishmael’s face adorning the back cover, with the stories he tells. I grew fond of the boy who listend to early rap cassettes, practicing his dances for a talent show, and I could never quite come to terms with the thought that the same child became a killer many times over. His story cuts to the core of what it is to be human, dissecting the constant struggle to do what is “right” versus what needs to be done to survive. It’s also important to note how “right” can be defined in many different ways for the same situation. It may mean leniency and generosity, but it can just as easily mean vengeance against those who killed your family and took everything you had, including your sense of security and childhood.
I cannot recall any news reports or history books that could deliver this sense of day-to-day, on the ground reality, and I truly hope that school systems across the U.S. add Ishmael’s work to their reading list. It is important for us to look beyond our borders and the confines of our regular reality, keeping our eyes open to the fact that there are problems much larger than ours around the globe. What we do about them is another question – one which I am turning over in my head.
I highly recommend you pick up a copy of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (Amazon), or if you have read it, please leave a comment as I would love to hear your thoughts.