One-Minute Book Reviews

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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