Friday, October 16, 2009

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, By Ishmael Beah

When my dad was in school, Vietnam was the conflict that had many people the world over calling for attention to the abuse of human rights. This was around the same time that many previously uncovered (in the United States media) events in Africa began boiling over, including the conflict in Sierra Leone. Of course, right now, the world conflicts that are garnering attention from human rights groups throughout post-industrial nations include what's happening in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the Darfur region of Sudan, and the civil war in Sierra Leone, among many others.

There are many books out there now in ya and children's literature circles about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the catalog of books is ever increasing. Darfur has moved to the forefront for many who decry what is happening throughout Sudan. A great book that discusses and showcases the human side of the events in Sudan (not necessarily Darfur) is called What is the What, written by Dave Eggers telling the true story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee. Of course, this book is clearly written for adults, it is quite dense, and would be very cumbersome to read in a high school classroom, so I wouldn't recommend it.

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, written by and about Ishmael Beah, a boy soldier from Sierra Leone, is a book that is sized just right for the young adult audience. Content wise, this book is gritty and disturbing, as Beah takes us through his horrible experience of fleeing the rebels after the presumed death of his family, and hiding alone, as a child, in the jungles of Sierra Leone. He is eventually found and turned into a boy soldier, capable of ruthless genocide.

This story disturbed many adults in my reading group to the point that they could not finish the book, yet I was looking at this text as a resource to be used in an 11th or 12th grade literature class. As a non-fiction story (which we don't use often enough), a clear picture is painted here of genocide in our time. This isn't reading about the Holocaust and saying "wow, we must learn from those mistakes," because these things in Africa are happening right now.

First of all, this book is bloody, it is gritty, it is disturbing. It was written for the ya audience, and it is not any less appropriate for them than reading Maus (Art Spiegelman) or showing videos about the Darfur crisis. It's not a long book, which makes it a good two or three week long read, and the discussion that will surely take place upon completion of the book will go in many different directions, including morality, regaining humanity, and the place of an American in this crisis.