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A Long Way Gone: The True Story of a Child Soldier [Paperback]

Ishmael Beah
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (52 customer reviews)
RRP: 8.99
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Book Description

7 Jan 2008

The first-person account of a 26-year-old who fought in the war in Sierra Leone as a 12-year-old boy.

‘My new friends have begun to suspect that I haven't told them the full story of my life.
“Why did you leave Sierra Leone?”
“Because there is a war.”
“You mean, you saw people running around with guns and shooting each other?”
“Yes, all the time.”
I smile a little.
“You should tell us about it sometime.”
“Yes, sometime.”’

This is how wars are fought now: by children, hopped-up on drugs and wielding AK-47s. There are more than fifty conflicts going on worldwide and it is estimated there are some 300,000 child soldiers fighting. Ishmael Beah used to be one of them.

What is war like through the eyes of a child soldier? How does one become a killer? How does one stop? Child soldiers have been profiled by journalists, and novelists have struggled to imagine their lives. But until now, there has not been a first-person account from someone who came through this hell and survived. Ishmael Beah, now twenty-five years old, tells a riveting story: how at the age of twelve in Sierra Leone, he fled attacking rebels and wandered a land rendered unrecognizable by violence. By thirteen, he'd been picked up by the government army, and Beah, at heart a gentle boy, found he was capable of truly terrible acts.

This is a rare and mesmerizing account, told with real literary force and heartbreaking honesty.

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Frequently Bought Together

A Long Way Gone: The True Story of a Child Soldier + Bite of the Mango + The Devil That Danced on the Water: A Daughter's Memoir
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Product details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial (7 Jan 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007247095
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007247097
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (52 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 32,719 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


'A corrosive, eloquent and illuminating account of a child soldier's life, and it makes you look at the news with a fresh eye. What he has done is to make his situation imaginable for us, and stop us from simply turning away in horror. That is the best gift he could give the world.' Hilary Mantel

‘Gives the war a painfully human dimension and reminds us of its pointlessness…If the pathos of this book helps to persuade the puppeteers of the estimated 300,000 child soldiers fighting today to put down their guns, then Beah will have done more than all those A47s ever have.' The Times

‘A lucid, pensive, beautifully written account of a madness that he has the bravery to revisit head–on.’ TLS

‘Few of those boy soldiers have told their story as eloquently as Ishmael Beah.’ Sunday Telegraph

'The arming of children is one of the greatest evils of the modern world, and yet we know so little about it because the children themselves are swallowed up by the very wars they are forced to wage. Ishmael Beah has not only emerged intact from this chaos, he has become one of its most eloquent chroniclers. “A Long Way Gone” is one of the most important war stories of our generation. We ignore its message at our peril.' Sebastian Junger

'A ferocious and desolate account of how ordinary children were turned into professional killers.' The Guardian

'Beah makes no excuses for his actions and is entirely lacking in self pity, but the honesty of his memoir reveals the full horror of a war in which the brutalisation of children was commonplace…Beah is a living testament to the endurance of the human spirit.' Sunday Times

‘Ishmael Beah has achieved the seemingly impossible task of helping us to imagine the reality behind the statistics by empathising with just one of the many thousands of children who are soldiers around the world – a remarkable book.’ The Guardian

From the Publisher

Giving the World a Story
by Ishmael Beah

Writing A Long Way Gone was a decision to make a constant and active journey into my past, all of it. This required a reawakening of happy and painful memories and a deep exploration of them, regardless of the difficulties, physical, emotional and psychological, that came with this task. This journey within myself became a solitary process as the act of writing and remembering needed this necessary loneliness. When the book was completed, I felt so exhausted within my entire being that I thought I wouldn't have the strength to continue revisiting my past. The loneliness of writing had slightly made me forget that the most important purpose of it was to share my stories with others, the readers, some of whom have become friends and family by visiting my homeland via the telling of my life.

When the book was first released here in the United States, I did not know how I would deal with people's reaction to it. I wasn't even sure that there would be a tremendous interest in the story. Nevertheless, I knew that it would be another aspect of journeying into the past, that it would require more of me and this time not in solitude, as it was with the writing of the book. Since 1998, when I came to live in the United States, I hadn't told the story of my life, in its entirety, to many people. With the release of the book and travelling around to speak about it, the dynamics of withholding completely changed.

I remember how overwhelmed I felt when I did my first reading in New York City. The feeling reminded me of my first day of school when I was a little boy. There were so many eyes and all staring at me that I felt my face warming up from the energies projected onto me by their looking. Another thing that was simultaneously shocking and moving was the diversity of the crowd. There were people of all ages and from all walks of life. Teachers had brought their pupils, mothers had brought their children who were as young as eleven, and I later learned that some of the young people present had introduced their parents to the book and brought them to the reading. The energy in the room was welcoming, celebratory, sad, uplifting and above all it was filled with an air of expectation for what I had to say. It became very clear to me then that the writing of the book was not enough, that people needed to hear my voice and that I needed to share my experiences directly with them. This desire made me happy because I knew then that I had opened a door for an in-depth discussion of the use of children in war. In addition, this rapport required not only the sharing of my story but facilitated the brainstorming of what can be done, what has been done, to prevent this appalling phenomenon of using children in war.

At the end of the reading, I opened the floor for questions. There was a bit of delay as some people were wiping tears from their eyes, others hissing and some perhaps just not knowing what was the right question to ask, what was appropriate to say. I felt the emotions and confusion in the room and decided to say something to make everyone comfortable. 'Please do not hesitate to ask me anything you want. You will not offend me at all. And it is only by asking honest, difficult and thoughtful questions that we can all begin to understand what war does to the human spirit,' I said. The questions then started coming. First they were about my earlier childhood before the war, and then there were those about the war and rehabilitation, how I came to find myself in New York, etc. The signing of books followed this and almost everyone wanted to give me a hug. A remarkable thing that happened at that event that I will never forget was when a little girl who I hadn't seen during the reading gave me a teddy bear and said, 'You can still have your childhood.' She was no more than nine years old. This stood out particularly for me because it was such a simple yet meaningful and heartfelt gesture. She smiled and walked away into the arms of her weeping mother. Throughout the book tour, that still continues and I have received similar gestures. People have given me things such as a belt buckle with the head of a lion, rap cassettes, all of which I had lost during the war, and so many other items including meaningful letters. Through these gestures and letters, I have come to learn that my story has become theirs and that our common humanity has connected.

In my Mende tribe in Sierra Leone, there is a saying that 'When you tell a story, you give it out to the world and whoever listens becomes a part of that story; the story becomes theirs in how they relate to it, use it and find whatever meaning they can in the telling.' I believe that this is what has happened with writing about my experiences. Even though it is a personal story, the issue that the book puts a human face to is bigger than everyone and me. Therefore, each person has been able to make that human connection that is specifically their own. I only act as a facilitator for this journey of discovering and being exposed to the lives of others in different parts of the world.

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Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
4.7 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Heartbreaking story of a war victim 14 Feb 2008
By Jaybird
Ismael Beah's story of being caught up in the civil war of Sierra Leone, of witnessing and then taking part in atrocities, is simply written, but no less powerful for that. He writes as a child of 12, although it is clear from his afterword that he has chosen this style to give greater impact, and that as a wrtier he is capable of a much more sophisticated analysis.

This approach works and definitely makes the book accessible to teenagers, particularly teenage boys.

He has a great ear for the nuances of childhood, you can immediately connect to both his feelings of excitement, loneliness and fear in the earlier parts of the book.

His book describes all the initiations of a child soldier - the drug addiction and violent initiation ceremonies, but skims somewhat over what happened between being forced to be a child soldier and his rehabilitation.

You are also left with a feeling that some of the process of rehabilitation has been left private. There is a difficult line between honesty and indulging the reader's voyeurism. this is not a book which indulges in violence for its own sake.

That said, Beah's description of what must have been an incredibly painful journey towards self-acceptance and rehabilitation is sometimes skimmed over. He was a child, with no real choices, but he also did some terrible things and deep down he must know that. There is none of the masterful, and intensely painful, self analysis of, say, Roman Frister, in his book "The Cap, or the Price of a Life". Perhaps Beah is still too young to write that book of his life, but I think he may have it in him.

So, an excoriating description of life in Sierra Leone, which leaves you to fill in some the gaps yourself.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A simple and powerful story 19 Feb 2008
This story is simply told. There are no fancy literary flourishes designed to manipulate the reader's emotions and no eloquent explanations designed to sway us to a particular viewpoint. It is the simple story of a child unwittingly caught up in the appalling violence of civil war. The narrator tells his own story. It is the story of how civil war destroys the normality of life in his village, of how he runs from the advancing violence, but eventually cannot avoid being drafted into its very heart as a child soldier. He describes the process of desensitization that allows him to survive the horrors he participates in and the even more difficult process of learning to re-engage with civil society once he has been rescued from the battlefield.

Some readers may be disappointed by the fact that the book provides only very limited historical background to the conflict in Sierra Leone and by the fact that the narrator engages in only very limited introspection about what he has experienced. The plot also contains a few scenes that come across as a bit contrived and unlikely, but none of this detracts from the picture that is painted of the horrors of child soldiers involved in civil war. The power of the story lies in its simplicity and in the fact that we know it is being told by someone who lived through it.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Something missing 26 Dec 2009
This book describes the experiences of the author as a child in civil war-torn Sierra Leone. Beah first relates his agonising separation from family, the aimless wandering from place-to-place, and subsequently the violent events after joining the national army as a child soldier. He kills countless people and witnesses horrors all too consistent with the reports of others. However, I felt uneasy about the book. Some aspects just didn't ring true.
It was at this point that I learned of the unresolved controversy about the accuracy of the events described by the author. Personally what troubled me however was not the issue of historical accuracy. Rather it was the complete absence of remorse. Beah slits the throats of prisoners in cold blood as he looks into their eyes, shoots at them to hurry them to dig their own graves, helps bury them alive and so forth. Despite these acts against the defenceless I found little or no self-questioning, and precious little regret, only an acceptance of the view that "it was not your fault". In the end the book therefore came across as self-orientated and even self-serving. Of course much can be understood in terms of the need to survive at the time and, after such trauma, denial is an understandable self-protection. Nevertheless, I expected more from someone with time to reflect and who is now head of his own USA-based foundation to help former child soldiers. From this book you will learn something of the events of that period, be they Beah's experiences or others I am not sure it matters, but you won't learn so much about the human response to such horror and the struggle to live with having performed such acts. Perhaps a child is protected from such agonies or maybe they only emerge with more time.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The darkness of human capability 4 Sep 2008
The subtitle to this is `Memoirs of a Boy Soldier' and Ishmael Beah paints a stunning and horrifying picture of what human beings are capable of doing. The acts that he's party to, the acts that he perpetrates, are horrendous in their violence and their cruelty, and yet Ishmael's background story - how he loses his family and everything he has known and is manipulated and coerced into his actions - gives these acts a dramatic context.
Reading this true story will stir strong emotions and, in the case of this reviewer at least, put things into perspective; for those thinking life is tough with credit crunches and expensive petrol prices, think again...
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Makes interesting reading.
Published 1 month ago by juergen sierks
5.0 out of 5 stars A Must Read!
We've all heard of boy soldiers & probably not thought too much more about it. This is an unbelievable insight into how (in most cases) they are recruited & basically never stand a... Read more
Published 4 months ago by MBNA
3.0 out of 5 stars a long way gone
i just could not get into this story, a truely sad and tragic way to spend your youth,can one ever recover
Published 6 months ago by BRIAN C
4.0 out of 5 stars An eye-opener
Everyone knows that child soldiers exist but this personal account illustrates how the children fall into the rebel/army "families" and make it understandable. Read more
Published 7 months ago by PD
5.0 out of 5 stars An anti war truth
I read this book just after "Bite of the Mango" by Mariatu Kamara after visiting the Country of Blood Diamonds fame. Read more
Published 9 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Great life story
Truly amazing and gruesome life story. Recommended if you want to explore the insanity of humainty and try to understand the former civil war in Sierra Leone.
Published 9 months ago by Clabbe Bjurstrom
5.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting book
It is a good book to be read, thanks for the author of this book ma knwledge bout sierre leone's civil war has improved, as i have been always curious about why its been considered... Read more
Published 11 months ago by Fatou Jabbi Jaiteh
5.0 out of 5 stars Reality Check
Great book for teens understand the way of life of others of thier own age
Published 11 months ago by I am being followed and my accounts hacked
5.0 out of 5 stars We should all read this
Firstly, I would like to say that I don't agree with another review here by 'Jaybird' that the author deliberately chose to tell his story using the voice of a 12-year-old, not at... Read more
Published 12 months ago by Susana J G
5.0 out of 5 stars Emotional
I am actually reading this book now and I have to lay it down every now and then to study my emotions. Read more
Published 13 months ago by Amelia Ofori
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