“When I was young, my father used to say, ‘If you are alive, there is hope for a better day and something good to happen. If there is nothing good left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die.’ I thought about these words during my journey, and they kept me moving even when I didn’t know where I was going. Those words became the vehicle that drove my spirit forward and made it stay alive.” – Ishmael Beah
One of the most frustrating things about being a teacher in North America is the amount of entitlement I see in my students on a daily basis. I see it in the uproar they create when I confiscate their phones, the malaise they show when they are reprimanded for handing an item in late, or the outright expectation that in the end their work ethic, or lack thereof, will not affect whether or not they are successful at completing school. As both a Social Studies and English teacher, I like to challenge my students’ world view and prod at the comfortable little bubble they reside in. Ishmael Beah’s book, A Long Way Gone, is an extremely effective tool in bursting the comfortable bubble that some students live in. Beah’s book is a powerful memoir of his time as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, the struggle to survive the civil war and avoid capture, the internal battle over remorse when performing his “military duties”, and the recovery process he underwent to become normalized again. It is heart wrenching, and eye opening. It gives a very personal glimpse into what is going on outside of this sheltered continent called North America.
It is a fantastic bubble-burster because students read the book and see first-hand the struggles that people in the developing world must endure. The book highlights the resiliency of children to overcome great odds when faced with challenges, and shows that the grit we try to instill in them is not a lost cause, but training for the challenges they will face in life. This is not to say that our students will endure similar hardships to Ishmael, but that perhaps they will face those challenges with more optimism and a stronger work ethic, because, if a boy like Ishmael can overcome what life threw in his path, should not any human be able to take on the problems they may face with courage?
The theme that was impressed upon me the most while reading Beah’s story was the brittle nature of humanity. Early in the story, Ishmael’s innocence is taken from him because of turmoil in his country. Instead of enjoying his adolescences, he is forced to run for his life, lose contact with family members, and generally have his life turned upside down. Once he is picked up by the government’s army at the age of 13, he is forced to commit terrible acts and his humanity increases to deteriorate. His life in the army breaks him down, and once he is rescued, it takes significant help to try and fix what his experiences ruined. A Long Way Gone highlights the tenuousness of our humanity and how extreme situations can debase it and cause us to succumb to our baser instincts. It is even more powerful because it is not some fictional interpretation of the story, but Beah’s actual account of events he had to endure.
With so much to be able to dig into, I would highly recommend this book to be used for Lit Circles. It will give students so many things to think critically about, challenge their world view, and force them to dig into a wolrd outside of their comfort zone. The prose is not overly challenging, although the content can be fairly sad and brutal, so I would say this is a book for grade 10 and up. Much like my last review, World War Z, one of the strongest themes in A Long Way Gone is humanity and the human reaction to challenge. I would pair this book with Max Brooks’ World War Z or Pat Barker’s Regeneration, as they again all deal with the issues of seeing horrors first-hand, and the brokenness of war, or Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner because of the brokenness of childhood and the recovery process involved. A Long Way Gone is a brokenly fantastic story of overcoming extreme hardships, and the resiliency of humanity.