Bael, I,(2007). A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.New York: Sarah Crichton Books, Farrar, Straus,and Giroux, 217pp.
Summary: The enthralling and horrifying story of Ishmael Bael's life. Ishmael begins by sharing how happy his life was as a young boy living in Sierra Leone. Ishmael lived with his mother and brothers. His parents had separated earlier and his father lived in another village. Ishmael visited him often and though he was sad his parents were not together, his life was happy. He went to school, he played with friends, and he was known affectionately as a troublemaker. Though Ishmael often heard rumors and stories of war in the village he never dreamed it would touch his life. He was typical twelve year old boy living a typical life that is until the Revolutionary United Force unexpectedly overtook his village in a brutal attack. Ishmael's life was forever changed as panic consumed everyone and they scattered like mice in the night running away from flying bullets and dodging bayonets. Families were torn apart and lost children cried for help with no one to answer. The terrifying event resulted in a separation of Ishmael from his mother, father, and a brother. He never saw them again. Ishmael and his other brothers were left no choice but to try to move to a place of safety. Along their journey, Ishmael is traumatized over and over again by the grotesqueness of war. Dead bodies, mutilated bodies, burned, shot into pieces begin to mean nothing to Ishmael as he grew accustomed to them The instinct to survive and escape the nightmare consumed his thoughts both sleeping and waking. Eventually, Ishmael found refuge in a village guarded by government army soldiers. When it seemed inevitable that the rebels would take the village, all young boys were called to fight. The choice, either fight and keep the village safe or leave. Leaving, of course, would have meant death because of rebels hiding in the forest around them. The decision to become a soldier was not difficult to make. Ishmael chooses to fight and begins training, as well as, brainwashing that would eventually make killing other humans easy. Ishmael's first kill sets him free and he unleashes the anger and pain he's held inside for so long and from that point on killing is as easy as breathing. Ishmael eventually is rescued by workers from UNICEF who take him to a rehabilitation center for child soldiers. After intense treatment, counseling, and reconditioning he is placed with an uncle to live. Later, Ishmael is chosen to be a speaker at the United Nations in New York. He flies there and at the meeting he meets many other young people like himself only from different countries and slightly different situations. However they all share the same experiences of being young children fighting in brutal wars. Ishmael and the other speakers aspires to uncover the atrocities happening to children in their war torn countries. Ishmael makes friends and enjoys this experience but is glad to go back home. Soon after he returns to his uncle, the unbelievable happens. The rebels invade his village again. He's forced to run. Ishmael is desperate to not to return to the life he once lived. Others have fled and some that have been rehabilitated rejoin the army and begin to fight again. Ishmael knows he cannot stay and makes arrangements to get back to New York City to live with a friend. Ishmael returns to the US where he finishes high school, then college, and begins life as an advocate for the human rights of children by serving in multiple organizations and on various panels.
Characters: There are many characters in this book, though, the entire story is truly Ishmael's alone. Ishmael's thoughts and reflections are very understandable. We can't identify with him in that we've actually shared the same experiences, but in a very light way we have. We experience the brutalities of war and the gruesomeness of the casualties through Ishmael's words. We understand choices he makes without judging him harshly. Ishmael begins as a young boy and emerges as a man in this story. He faces struggles to eat, to find water, and to stay alive daily for years. He's resourceful, strong, courageous, and determined to save himself. It's through the course of his life that Ishmael becomes the person he is. A person who despite the worse traumas life could deal out, not only escapes death, but escapes his old life to build a new one. Ishmael is a survivor. In that respect, he's a hero. Yes, he killed many people, but he did what he had to do to survive. Many, many others who walked beside did not share his strength and perseverance and they did not survive.
I would recommend this book for older adolescent students, probably tenth grade or higher. I think the vivid details of violence could be disturbing to many students and content very mature. I don't think I would teach a literature class using the book either in a small group or large group setting because it doesn't really address the needs of students as other book would. Yes, Ishmael grows up, but it's hardly the experience an American student could share. I would recommend it for individual reads. I don't mean to underscore the value of this story because there is value in having this book in the library or classroom. If I were teaching subjects that might be related to this story, I would refer to it. Current events, other human genocides, human rights, etc. would be just a few instances it would be relevant. Although his story plays like a horror movie, the fact that Ishmael was able to survive, speaks volumes about human nature. Also, I'd like students to see that although horrible things happen to all of us, we can survive them, we can rise above our pasts and continue living.