Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Author Recommendation #2 – Ishmael Beah

My next selection marks a foray into the world of non-fiction, but it is a world as horrendous as any that can be found in the darkest of fiction. Yet upon completion of the book, the reader realizes that he or she has made a journey to redemption alongside the author.

Ishmael Beah, the author of A Long Way Gone, is a victim of war-torn Sierra Leone, the country depicted in the film Blood Diamond. Now a young man of 26, this very bright, articulate and talented writer effectively conveys the horror of his experiences as a boy soldier, conscripted into the army at the age of 13 to fight the rebels, although the bloody, inhumane behaviour of each side makes them virtually impossible to distinguish.

An apparently happy and sensitive boy before both the loss of his family and the conscription, Beah is quickly transformed into something barely recognizable as human. Through the deadening effects of drugs and a yearning for a renewed sense of family, both readily provided by the army, he becomes a conscienceless killer, dispatching people not only in the relatively impersonal context of the battlefield, but also in the more immediate environment of open air interrogation of captured rebels. At no time in the book does Beah seek to minimize the atrocities he was involved in, although there is much that he chooses not to dwell upon, I suspect out of respect for his readers’ sensibilities. It is enough to say that the innocence and the humanity of the boy are lost.

But if this were all there was to Beah’s story, it would be unrelentingly bleak. Thanks to fate, God, or just pain luck, he is rescued, against his will, from a life that surely would have ended soon. Taken by UNICEF to a rehabilitation camp, Beah begins the long struggle to reintegrate into a normal existence. The second part of the book takes an uncompromising look at the difficulties this entailed for the boy soldier and his peers, who for a long time resist the most determined efforts to restore their humanity; their anger at having been taken from their ‘family,’ the army, is made palpable through the author’s prose.

I cannot recommend this book too highly. Most of us, myself included, would be hard pressed to even find Sierra Leone on a map, much less say with honesty that we spend any of our waking moments worrying about the plight of child soldiers in the world. Ishmael Beah humanizes the things that we may, in passing, read about in the newspaper over coffee. But his book accomplishes so much more. We are also invited to witness the restoration of his soul, an arduous process, but one that cannot help but remind us that even in the seemingly lost cases of the world, redemption can be attained.

As Beah himself has said, “It is very easy for a person to lose his humanity, and very difficult to get it back.” Difficult yes, but not impossible, as A Long Way Gone amply demonstrates.

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