One-Minute Book Reviews

January 29, 2008

More Questions About Ishmael Beah’s ‘A Long Way Gone’

[Update at 5:20 p.m. Ishmael Beah stands by his story in an Associated Press article posted today www.books.beloblog.com/archives/2008/01/ishmael_beah_stands_by_hi, though I can’t get this link to the story to work.]

More questions have arisen about Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone in a continuing investigation of the book by the Australian, the Australian national newspaper. The paper says it “failed to find any supporting evidence for one of the book’s dramatic peaks: the death of six boy soldiers in a fight at a UNICEF-run camp in the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown in early 1996.” Beah and his publisher have defended the accuracy of A Long Way Gone. But they have refused to answer questions about discrepancies between what the reporters found and what appears in the book, the newspaper says. Here’s the latest report on the controversy, in which I am quoted:

www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23130172-5016101,00.html

A review of A Long Way Gone appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Feb. 27, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/27/, And a reading group guide to the book was posted on March 5, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/05/. The guide noted that John Corry, who has reported from West Africa, said in a review in the Wall Street Journal: “It is permissible to wonder whether Mr. Beah is accurately recalling events and people and what they said.”

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 24, 2008

An Open Letter to Ishmael Beah About the Questions Recently Raised About His Memoir, ‘A Long Way Gone,’ by Reporters for The Australian

Mr. Ishmael Beah
c/o Sarah Crichton Books
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
19 Union Square West
New York, New York 10003

Dear Mr. Beah:

Nearly a year ago, One-Minute Book Reviews questioned how you could have seen some of the things you claim to have observed in A Long Way Gone, your gripping memoir of your experiences as a teenage soldier in Sierra Leone. This site raised its questions first in a review of your book www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/27/ and then in a reading group guide www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/05/. The guide noted that John Corry, who has reported from West Africa, said in his review in the Wall Street Journal: “It is permissible to wonder whether Mr. Beah is accurately recalling events and people and what they said.”

More recently the newspaper The Australian raised questions about the timeline of your story www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23082274-2703,00.html. You responded to these by saying, in part, “I am right about my story. This is not something one gets wrong. … Sad to say, my story is all true” www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6524214.html%5E. The Australian disputes this and challenges your criticism of the paper in a statement posted by Publishers Weekly www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6525128.html.

In any case your response to The Australian was so prompt that I hope you will now be willing to respond to questions I raised last year. Some involve a scene on page 97 of A Long Way Gone (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007) www.fsgbooks.com. You say that you and friends “lay in the dirt” on a coffee farm near a ruined village and eavesdropped on rebels who played cards and chatted “for hours.” You write that you heard one rebel say his group had just burned three villages:

“Another rebel, the only one dressed in full army gear, agreed with him. ‘Yes, three is impressive, in just a few hours in the afternoon.’ He paused, playing with the side of his G3 weapon. ‘I especially enjoyed burning this village. We caught everyone here. No one escaped. That is how good it was. We carried out the command and executed everyone. Commander will be pleased when he gets here.’ He nodded, looking at the rest of the rebels, who had stopped the game to listen to him. They all agreed with him, nodding their heads. They gave each other high fives and resumed their game.”

My questions include: How could you and your friends have been close enough to overhear that conversation yet avoid detection “for hours” by the rebels? If you could see a rebel “nod” and others “nodding” in agreement, how could the rebels could not see you? In your time as a solider, did you take any any notes that would help you remember conversations in such detail? Or were you relying only on the “photographic memory” that you say in your book that you have? If you took notes, how did you hide them while you were a soldier and get them out of the country later on?

I would appreciate any clarification you can provide.

Sincerely,

Janice Harayda
One-Minute Book Reviews

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 13, 2007

Michael Maren Indicts Major Charities and International Relief Organizations in His Exposé, ‘The Road to Hell’

Maybe that Christmas carol should say, ‘Tis the season to get suckered

The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity. By Michael Maren. Free Press, 302 pp., $26.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

The Road to Hell should probably return to bookstore windows every December the way It’s a Wonderful Life comes back to television. Michael Maren is a former food monitor for the United States Agency for International Development in Somalia, and he has seen at close range the many ways misplaced charity harms the world’s poor. In this blistering and well-researched book, he exposes some the worst abuses of international relief agencies and charities — particularly CARE and Save the Children — that have grabbed a piece of my money and maybe yours, too. If you’re like me, you may wish you’d written a check instead to that food pantry in your hometown.

I reviewed The Road to Hell when it first appeared in 1997 www.netnomad.com/cpdreview.html and went back to it recently to see how it stood up to the latest upheavals among relief organizations that operate in Africa, the focus of the book. One change occurred in August when CARE said that it was rejecting some $45 million in surplus wheat, earmarked by the U.S. government for overseas distribution, because such programs hurt poor farmers who can’t compete with the low-priced food Americans dump on their local economies. You might think that such developments would make The Road to Hell www.simonsays.com seem outdated. They instead make it appear prophetic, because they implicitly support its theme: that sweeping, never-ending aid programs are the new colonialism and may create a dependency that keeps recipients from returning to self-sufficiency.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

June 8, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Peter Godwin’s ‘When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa
By Peter Godwin

This guide for reading groups was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

“In Africa, you do not view death from the auditorium of life, as a spectator, but from the edge of the stage, waiting only for your cue,” Peter Godwin writes in this elegant memoir of the terrors of the nearly 30-year regime of dictator Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. If those words sound melodramatic, consider a few of the facts offered by the author, a former foreign correspondent for BBC TV who grew up in what was then the British colony of Rhodesia. Godwin’s sister and her fiancé were killed in 1978, just before their wedding, when they ran into army ambush during the war for independence. Mugabe later sent hit squads into the countryside to abduct and murder his opponents. The husband of Godwin family friend was forced to drink diesel oil before he was killed. The author’s father was beaten outside his home. A woman had worked for 20 years as the family housekeeper returned soon after her retirement with enforcers and demanded money. As Godwin tried to help his parents stay safe, he uncovered a family secret that he believes helps to explain a question at the heart of his memoir: Amid the terror, why didn’t his parents return to England, where they had lived before settling in Africa?

Questions for Readers

1. The title of When a Crocodile Eats the Sun comes from the belief among some Zulus that a solar eclipse occurs when a “celestial crocodile” eats the sun. [Page 201] Godwin is clearly using the eclipse as a metaphor. At least two kinds of eclipses – personal and national – occur in this memoir. What are the eclipses?

2. Godwin returns to the crocodile when he visits his godmother in a nursing home. She is reading a magazine that has a quote from Winston Churchill, who says, “Appeasement is feeding the crocodile, hoping it will eat you last.” [Page 326] We may assume Churchill was referring to Hitler (the crocodile) and the Munich Pact (the appeasement), which allowed Germany to claim parts of Czechoslovakia. Who is the crocodile in Godwin’s book? How does this image relate to the memoir as a whole?

3. In his memoir Godwin tries to draw parallels between the treatment of whites in Africa and Jews in other parts of the world. How effective were his efforts?

4. When a Crocodile Eats the Sun begins when Godwin gets a call saying that his father has had a heart attack and he needs to fly to Harare, Zimbabwe (formerly Salisbury, Rhodesia). At this point, his sister and her fiancé have already been killed. Godwin often seems to put himself in serious danger to provide aid or comfort to his parents. Do you see him as brave, crazy or something else? Would you have done what he did in the frightening situations in the book? Why or why not?

5. If you have lived in the U.K. or watch the BBC news regularly on cable, you know that the British media cover international events more extensively than their American counterparts do. Godwin seems to be reacting to this when writes: “Africa seldom makes it into the American media; even the venerable New York Times mostly smuggles in its Africa coverage as soft features on slow news days, or six-line bulletins in the news-in-brief section. Yet every single day, newspaper headlines can legitimately announce: ‘Another Five Thousand Africans Die of AIDS.’” [Page 204] Do you agree with Godwin’s comments on Africa and the American media? After reading his book, would you encourage American editors and producers to change their coverage? How?

6. If you agree with Godwin that the American media slight Africa, why do you think this is so? Is it racism, pure and simple, or do other factors come into play?

7. Godwin often suggests that for all the terrors his white parents faced, Mugabe’s despotism hurt black Zimbabweans the most. Do you agree? Why? What cruelties did blacks suffers under his dictatorship?

8. As Mugabe’s stranglehold on Zimbabwe tightened, a group of women from Women of Zimbabwe Arise! (WOZA) were attacked while demonstrating against the regime. “They are middle-aged black ladies – the pillars of society, normally to be found at the Women’s Institute or organizing church teas,” Godwin writes. “Yet here they are, their arms in casts, patches over their eyes, bandages around their heads. And still they are spirited and indignant. This, it seems to me, is true courage.” [Page 224] Does this recall any episodes in American history? Which ones? Would the American women you know, white or black, have the courage to do what those of WOZA did?

9. Flashes of humor appear even in parts of this book that deal with bleak subjects like the AIDS pandemic. At a backpackers’ hangout at Victoria Falls, Godwin sees a huge jar (with one condom in it) that bears the label “AIDS Kills So Don’t Be Silly, Put A Condom on Your Willy.” [Page 107] How do details like this help When a Crocodile Eats the Sun? Without them, might this book be almost too painful to read?

10. “It is sometimes said that the worst thing to happen to Africa was the arrival of the white man,” Godwin writes. “And the second worst was his departure. Colonialism lasted just long enough to destroy much of Africa’s indigenous cultures and traditions, but not long enough to leave behind a durable replacement.” [Page 155] Do you agree or disagree? How did Godwin’s memoir affect your view of this idea?

Extras:
11. You may have been taught that writers use symbols only in fiction or poetry. This clearly isn’t true (given that the crocodile stands for more than a reptile in this book). The use of symbols, metaphors and other literary devices has become common in works of narrative nonfiction such as When a Crocodile Meets the Sun. For example, rattlesnakes are a recurring motif in Joan Didion’s early books. Have you read other nonfiction books that make effective use of symbols, metaphors or similar literary devices? What are some other symbols or metaphors in Godwin’s book?

12. At least one American university, Michigan State, has given an honorary degree to Robert Mugabe. Apparently the school is reconsidering the award. What would you say to the university administrators?

Vital statistics
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa. By Peter Godwin. Little, Brown, 344 pp., $24.99. First U.S. edition: April 2007. www.hachetteookgroupusa.com

A review of When a Crocodile Eats the Sun appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com
on June 6, 2007, and is archived with the June posts and in the “Memoirs” category.

Contact the author: Peter Godwin, Author/When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, Hachette Book Group USA, 237 Park Ave., New York, New York 10169. (Yes, publishers do forward the letters.)

Your book group may also want to read:

Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa (Harper Perennial, $14, paperback). By Peter Godwin. Godwin writes about his childhood and the events that preceded those of When a Crocodile Eats the Sun in this earlier memoir.

A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide (Harper Perennial, $14 paperback). By Samantha Power. Godwin tries to forge links between the treatment of whites in Africa and Jews everywhere. You may want to see how Power handles a similar subject in this Pulitzer Prize–winning book, which compares the Nazi atrocities to genocide in Rwanda, Cambodia, Iraq and elsewhere.

“Showing Mugabe the Door.” By Peter Godwin. The New York Times, April 3, 2007, page A21. In this op-ed page article, Godwin provides an update on what’s happened in Zimbabwe since he finished When a Crocodile Eats the Sun. He also explores how the U.S. and other democracies could get rid of Mugabe.

“The Future Is Black.” By Anthony Sattin. The Spectator, March 24, 2007. www.spectator.co.uk. This is an unusually intelligent and well-written review of When a Crocodile Eats the Sun. (Search the site for “Peter Godwin” to find it.)

For a brief history of the Mugabe era in Zimbabwe, search the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia www.wikipedia.org for “Robert Mugabe.”

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of The Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns. If this guide helped you, please consider linking from your blog to One-Minute Book Reviews. Thank you for visiting this site.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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June 6, 2007

Peter Godwin’s Memoir of Terror in Africa, ‘When a Crocodile Eats the Sun’

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:10 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

When tragedy struck the author’s family and others in Zimbabwe

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa. By Peter Godwin. Little Brown, 334 pp., $24.99.

By Janice Harayda

“In Africa, you do not view death from the auditorium of life, as a spectator, but from the edge of the stage, waiting only for your cue,” Peter Godwin writes in this elegant memoir of the terrors inflicted on his family and others during the nearly 30-year regime of dictator Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

Godwin’s older sister and her fiancé were killed in 1978, just before their wedding, when they ran into army ambush during the war for independence. No one can know the full effects of that tragedy on his mother, a doctor, and his father, an engineer, among the last wave of English immigrants to arrive before Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. But if Helen and George Godwin thought their lives couldn’t get worse, they were wrong.

The terror escalated after voters defeated a Mugabe-backed referendum to extend presidential term limits in 2000. Mugabe sent hit squads into the countryside to abduct, torture and murder his opponents. His victims included a white farmer, the husband of a Godwin family friend, who was forced to drink diesel oil before he was killed. The author’s father, old and ill, was beaten outside his home by thugs who took his car and wallet. A woman who had worked for 20 years as the family housekeeper returned with goons after her retirement and demanded money. The elder Godwins installed a “rape gate” to seal off their bedrooms in case their home was invaded.

Why didn’t the couple leave Zimbabwe? Godwin suggests that they stayed partly because his father had decided, as a young man, to suppress his Polish-Jewish roots after his mother and sister died at Treblinka. Africa allowed him to be “a new man.” That may be true. But this aspect of his parents’ decision seems slightly overplayed in the book. Godwin doesn’t quite persuade you that there weren’t more important factors in their unwillingness to leave than his father’s submerged Jewish roots. Many whites stayed without having such tangled backgrounds. And so few people want to relocate late in life that, at least in the U.S., most people do not move to another state in retirement but stay close to home. Perhaps the Godwins dreaded returning to England’s soggy climate after living for so long in a place “where the rose blossoms are as big as babies’ heads.”

It hardly matters to the success of this memoir, which joins We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families in the first rank of personal encounters with Africa. For all his family lost, Godwin writes poignantly — and with occasional bleak humor – about Zimbabwe. On a trip to Victoria Falls he visits a backpackers’ gathering spot and sees, amid the tourist brochures, a jar with a label that reads: “AIDS Kills So Don’t Be Silly, Put A Condom on Your Willy.”

“Inside is a single foil wrapper,” Godwin writes. “Years too late, Zimbabwe has launched an AIDS education campaign.”

The title of When a Crocodile Eats the Sun refers to the belief among some Zulus that a solar eclipse occurs when a celestial crocodile eats the sun, and it suggests the parallel eclipses of Godwin’s parents and Zimbabwe. Another metaphor presents itself when Godwin speaks to a doctor about his diabetic father’s gangrenous feet.

“The pain your father feels at present, ischemic pain, is the pain of a muscle being deprived of oxygen,” the physician says. “It is the very worst, most intense kind of pain there is.” Much like that of a nation being deprived of its freedom.

Best line: Godwin writes of flying over Africa in 2003: “Our flight takes us down a continent of catastrophe. Many of the conflicts 30,000 feet below I have covered in my career as a foreign correspondent. It unfolds like a geography of doom. Sierra Leone, where the hacking off of limbs was standard practice; Liberia, where peacekeeping Bangladeshis in blue helmets were struggling to separate teenage gunmen wearing women’s clothing; Ivory Coast, divided between bitter ethnic rivals; Congo, where civil war still raged in a nation that has ceased to be and probably never was; Sudan, where a civil war still rages and triggers frequent spasms of famine; Somalia, which has no government at all now, a country that deserves the description anarchic.”

Worst line: Godwin’s father says: “Being a white here [in Zimbabwe] is starting to feel a bit like being a Jew in Poland in 1939 – an endangered minority – the target of ethnic cleansing.” This is one of number of places where Godwin tries to draw needless parallels between African tragedies and others. The terror in Zimbabwe is horrific whether or not it resembles the Holocaust or ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

Editors: Judy Clain and Marie Salter

Published: April 2007 (first U.S. Edition)

Furthermore: Peter Godwin was born and raised in Zimbabwe and has been a foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times of London and BBC TV. He also wrote Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa (Grove, 2005), a memoir of his childhood.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She also wrote The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999), a comedy of Midwestern manners, and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004), a comedy of New York manners www.janiceharayda.com.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 5, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier’ by Ishmael Beah

Discussion Questions for A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Solider

by Ishmael Beah

Source: One-Minute Book Reviews

http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher, or agent for the book. This guide is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries, which may use it in their in-house reading groups. Other book clubs that wish to use this guide should link to it or check “Contact” page to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

A Long Way Gone is a memoir by Ishmael Beah, who claims that he joined the government army in Sierra Leone to save his life after rebels destroyed his village and separated him from his parents. A review of this book appeared on Feb. 27, 2007, on One-Minute Book Reviews www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com and is archived in the “Memoirs” category and with the February 2007 posts on that site. [Note: Since this guide appeared, many of the claims in A Long Way Gone have been disputed by reputable journalists, and the publisher of the book has produced no proof that Beah was ever a child soldier.]

The publisher of A Long Way Gone has posted an extensive reading group guide to the book at www.fsgbooks.com that contains questions your club may want to use as a starting point for its discussions. That guide includes samples of the praise the book has received from respected authors or critics. Like most publishers’ promotional materials, the online guide does not encourage criticism of the book, cite concerns raised by reviewers, or suggest that you are reading anything other than a flawless work. The following Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide is not intended to be comprehensive but only to raise questions not covered by publisher’s guide.

Questions For Reading Groups About A Long Way Gone

1) Beah, now in his mid-20s, focuses on the upheavals that began when he was 12 and also covers some earlier events. How good is your memory for events in your life that occurred when you were that age? Can you recall events from that long ago in the detail Beah describes, including such things as hand gestures and a speaker’s pauses? If not, are you willing to give Beah credit for remembering them? Why or why not?

2) John Corry, who has reported from West Africa, wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “It is permissible to wonder whether Mr. Beah is accurately recalling events and people and what they said.” (Feb. 10, 2007, page P8.) Do you agree with Corry? If so, what are some of the things it’s permissible to question? Do your questions affect your overall view of A Long Way Gone? Corry is a senior editor of American Spectator, a conservative magazine. Do you believe that critics’ liberal or conservative biases affect their reviews? How might liberal and conservative critics have reviewed this book differently?

3) Corry noted in his review that, perhaps to forestall questions about the book, Beah writes: “To this day, I have an excellent photographic memory that enables me to remember details of the day-to-day moments of my life, indelibly.” [Page 51] Did you ever know anyone who had a “photographic memory”? Was the person sometimes able to recall events in the detail described in A Long Way Gone?

4) Beah says that the army supplied the young conscripts with “white capsules,” presumably amphetamines, to help them stay alert. He adds that the child soldiers also had easy access to other drugs. [Page 121] Beah writes:

“In the daytime, instead of playing soccer in the village square, I took turns at guarding posts around the village, smoking marijuana and sniffing, brown brown, cocaine mixed with gunpowder, which was always spread out on the table, and of course the white capsules, as I had become addicted to them.” [Page 121]

Are you willing to share with your group whether or not you ever took drugs and how they affected your perceptions of events? Or how drugs have affected the memory of someone you know who used them?

5) Beah describes in one scene how he and friends “lay in the dirt” on a coffee farm near a ruined village and eavesdropped on rebels who played cards and chatted “for hours.” [Page 97] He adds that he heard one rebel say his group had just burned three villages:

“Another rebel, the only one dressed in full army gear, agreed with him. ‘Yes, three is impressive, in just a few hours in the afternoon.’ He paused, playing with the side of his G3 weapon. ‘I especially enjoyed burning this village. We caught everyone here. No one escaped. That is how good it was. We carried out the command and executed everyone. Commander will be pleased when he gets here.’ He nodded, looking at the rest of the rebels, who had stopped the game to listen to him. They all agreed with him, nodding their heads. They gave each other high fives and resumed their game.” [p. 97]

Does it seem to you that Beah and his friends could have been close enough to overhear that conversation yet avoid detection “for hours” by the rebels? Or that if the boys could see a rebel “nod,” and others “nodding” in agreement, that the rebels could not see them? What are some possible explanations for how Beah could have observed a conversation in such detail while avoiding detection himself?

6) When this book was published, Beah worked for a respected international organization, Human Rights Watch www.hrw.org. He has also described his experiences at the United Nations and in other settings likely to have included experts who could have confirmed at least part of what he says. How does this affect your view of A Long Way Gone?

7) Beah is a young writer who has clearly survived tragedies that go beyond anything most of us will experience in our lives. Do you believe that because of his youth or suffering he should be held to different literary or journalistic standards than writers who are older or have not suffered as much? Or do you believe that there are standards that all authors should uphold? What are they?

Vital statistics:
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. By Ishmael Beah. Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Sarah Crichton, 229 pp., $22. Published: February 2007.

Your book group may also want to read:

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda (Picador, 1999) by Philip Gourevitch. This award-winning book describes the Rwandan genocide, which took place during a time that partly overlaps with that of A Long Way Gone. It also involves some similar events, such as machete killings. But Gourevitch places such events in a wider social and political context than Beah does. Comparing We Wish to Inform You … with A Long Way Gone may enrich your understanding of how events in Sierra Leone fit into the broader pattern of African history during the 1990s. It may also suggest ways Beah could have developed his story differently – for example, by adding more background about the events in his country – without sacrificing narrative power.

As a high school student, Beah wrote an essay about his experiences as a boy solider that appears on the web site for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation www.wagingpeace.org. Search the site for his name or “When Good Comes From Bad.”

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she writes about books and related topics.

© 2007 By Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 27, 2007

Ishmael Beah, Soldier Boy in Sierra Leone

Filed under: African American,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:30 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

A young author with a “photographic memory” writes of learning to use an AK-47

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Sarah Crichton, 229 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

At the age of 13, Ishmael Beah practiced for combat in his native Sierra Leone by “stabbing the banana trees with bayonets.” He had fled into the bush months earlier, carrying a few cassettes by LL Cool J and other rappers, when rebel forces attacked village and scattered his family.

Beah stayed on the run, near starvation, until captured by government soldiers who promised that if he joined the army, he would have food and a chance to avenge the loss of parents. Afraid he would be shot if he refused, he became part of a squad of boys between the ages of 7 and 16 who learned to use AK-47s and other weapons against the rebels who were still terrorizing the countryside. He also became addicted to the marijuana, cocaine mixed with gunpowder, and “white tablets” – presumably amphetamines – that the army gave young conscripts to ease their fears and keep them awake on patrol. For more than two years, he says, killing was “a daily activity” that he describes in chilling detail in A Long Way Gone. Then one day United Nations workers showed up – as unexpectedly as rebels had attacked his old village — and demanded that the army release some of boys, including Beah, who made his way to Guinea and from there to New York.

These experiences make for a story that, if gripping, is at times hard to believe, and not just because the killings it describes are so savage. Now 26 years old, Beah could not have taken many notes as a soldier, because their discovery could have led to his death. Instead, he implies, he relied his “photographic memory” in telling his story. But you wonder if that memory might have been impaired by near-starvation or the chronic use of drugs, an issue that A Long Way Gone doesn’t address. And some of the events seem implausible regardless. In one scene Beah tells how he and several friends “lay in the dirt” on a coffee farm near a ruined village and eavesdropped on rebels who played cards and chatted “for hours.” He says he heard one rebel say that his group had just burned three villages:

“Another rebel, the only one dressed in full army gear, agreed with him. ‘Yes, three is impressive, in just a few hours in the afternoon.’ He paused, playing with the side of his G3 weapon. ‘I especially enjoyed burning this village. We caught everyone here. No one escaped. That is how good it was. We carried out the command and executed everyone. Commander will be pleased when he gets here.’ He nodded, looking at the rest of the rebels, who had stopped the game to listen to him. They all agreed with him, nodding their heads. They gave each other high fives and resumed their game.”

If Beah and his friends were close enough to hear that conversation, how did the rebels avoid hearing them “for hours”? If the boys could see a rebel “nod,” and others “nodding” in agreement, how could the rebels not see them? It appears that they could have avoided notice only by hiding behind bushes dense enough that neither group could see, or hear, the other.

Beah has described some of his wartime experiences at a United Nations conference and in other settings likely to have included experts who could have challenged aspects of his story that didn’t ring true. Even so, the tragic abuse of child soldiers is so important – and has received so little attention – that you wish he had made an airtight case for believing all that he has to say about it.

Best line: Beah writes his first visit to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone: “I was amazed at how many lights there were without the sound of a generator.”

Worst line: The scene at the coffee farm, described above, is one of a number that make you question the accuracy of some of Beah’s recollections.

Editor: Sarah Crichton

Published: February 2007

Furthermore: On Feb. 15, A Long Way Gone replaced Mitch Albom’s For One More Day as the only book sold at Starbucks coffee shops in the United States.

Reading group guides: The site for Farrar, Straus www.fsgbooks.com has a reading group guide. An additional reading group guide to A Long Way Gone was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 5. This unauthorized guide covers questions that do not appear in the official FSG guide. It is archived with the March posts and also in the Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides category.

Links: You can find other information at www.alongwaygone.com, the site for the book.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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