I wandered into Starbucks late last week and noticed a stack of books near the pastries. The cover featured a disturbing photo of a thoughtful young boy walking with an AK-47 across his back and some sort of grenade launcher across his shoulders. Curious, I picked up the book, A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah, and decided to use it to break to the law school monotony. Instead, the book broke my heart.
Beah writes a beautiful memoir with succinct and devastating language. The narrative begins with a description of his childhood in a small village in Sierra Leone where he had a reputation as being "troublesome." As a child, Beah developed a passion for rap music and enjoyed dance and memorizing the lyrics.
Eventually, rebel forces attack the village and separate Beah from the bulk of his family. He becomes a refugee fleeing violence and horror only to find the conflict chasing him across the country. Eventually, as the title suggests, Beah becomes a soldier for a government army unit and watches his childhood vanish in a haze of drugs and killing.
The story follows him through the conflict and into rehabilitation, where life outside the war zone casts a spotlight on the transformation from child to soldier as Beah struggles to reclaim his former identity from a cloud of guilt and anger.
My description above seems dark, but the story is a continual roller coaster of hope and brief periods of elation interrupted with violence and sorrow. It reads quickly and beautifully, and I highly recommend it--after all, Beah's reality is echoed in conflicts across the world every day.
The Role of Nature
From a literary standpoint, I particularly savored Beah's invocation of nature. He grew up in a village surrounded by lush foliage. The bushes become a hiding place, the trees offer a food source and shelter from hog attacks, the streams provide relief from the heat, and the ocean heals Beah's torn feet.
But his use of nature goes beyond providing a setting and fuses two of three story-telling traditions Beah acknowledges as influential in his narrative (the third being rap music). He grew up in a culture of vivid nature stories, several of which are repeated in the memoir. For example, he tells the story of a hunter who could transform himself into a wild hog. Then, by eating a certain plant, he could change back into a hunter and kill the hogs. Eventually, the hogs discovered the hunter's secret and attacked, which is why hogs are distrustful of all humans. Later, Beah finds that the cycles of violence also make humans distrustful of each other.
Beyond the parables of his youth, Beah grew up on Shakespeare and loved reciting the great speeches from Julius Caesar and MacBeth. Suddenly, Beah's descriptions of nature took on a different meaning. I remember reading in awe at the way Shakespeare wrapped the natural environment into his works. When evil is afoot in Julius Caesar, the shutters begin flapping around in some sort of phantom wind. Throughout his works, good and evil in humanity is reflected in benevolent or menacing signs in the natural world.
Beah invokes his natural world in similar ways except, while Shakespeare's use of nature probably derived from Elizabethan-era theology and superstitions, Beah suggests a horror so brutal that nature itself cannot remain passive. The crickets, moon and trees are not immune from the violence.
After an attack on his home town, Beah notes, "With the absence of so many people, the town became scary, the night darker, and the silence unbearably agitating. Normally, the crickets and birds sang in the evening before the sun went down. But this time they didn't, and darkness set in very fast. The moon wasn't in the sky; the air was stiff, as if nature itself was afraid of what was happening."
Whether this reaction from nature existed in reality or only in Beah's mind, the effect is just as powerful. After an attack, "the moon disappeared and took the stars with it, making the sky weep. Its tears saved us from the red bullets." Here, nature responds to human sadness and, in doing so, provides protection to the scared children.
Eventually, Beah makes the transition from child refugee to soldier-barbarian, addicted to cocaine and methamphetamines. After his initiation into the world of bloodshed, Beah loses many good friends in an ambush in a forest and "left them there in the forest, which had taken on a life of its own, as if it had trapped the souls that had departed from the dead. The branches of the trees looked as if they were holding hands and bowing their heads in prayer." At this point in the story, I began to get the idea that the trees were the last creatures with the will to keep praying.
In the midst of conflict, nature offers shelter while disguising threats, offers food along with predators, and reacts as it watches the horror unfold. The description of nature enriches the reading experience and helps explain the magnitude of the evil involved.
Pick up Beah's book. It is a well-written story that, at minimum, will transform the way you think about the headlines. At best, his story will leave you with a burning question: how can I help? That's exactly what I intend to ask the author when he appears for a book signing here in Dallas on March 6.