Memoir Week

The Miniaturist Amid the Massacre


We are gathering here today to discuss Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone. It is a strange and strangely ubiquitous book, for sale along with newfangled breakfast sandwiches and shamrock lattes at Starbucks everywhere; a massive excerpt ran as the cover story (TimesSelect subscription required) of the New York Times Magazine in January.

Part of the hubbub is its subject matter. It is the story of a “boy soldier,” a true story, told by an engaging young man who has been serving as a spokesperson for ex-child soldiers almost from the moment of his rehabilitation. Beah, who is from Sierra Leone in West Africa, became first a refugee in his own country and then a soldier in the government army at the age of 13 in the mid-1990s.

As it happens, an equally large part of the hubbub is that it is a powerful, moving, and even delightful book, especially at the margins. I certainly don’t want to minimize the horror of what happened to Beah or give the impression that the book is always easy to read. A Long Way Gone captures the sickness of life in a civil war—the incidental carnage of bullets spraying, the hopelessness (or worse) of those inured to violence by their violent experiences. Well before Beah and his young friends are press-ganged into the army, one of them, a big-eared boy named Saidu, reflects that:

Every time people come at us with the intent of killing us, I close my eyes and wait for death. Even though I am still alive, I feel like each time I accept death, part of me dies. Very soon I will completely die and all that will be left is my empty body walking with you. It will be quieter than I am.

Saidu does not himself become a soldier, but his speech helps illuminate how a gentle, mischievous child becomes a murderer, and a callous one at that, whose sense of self is so diminished that he is not even particularly conflicted as he perpetrates acts of shocking brutality.

The reason the book is so successful, I think, is that Beah has a miniaturist’s eye for the telling detail. I’d say the book feels more like a novel than a memoir, but in point of fact plenty of novels are much worse at evoking a world than A Long Way Gone is. The prose is mostly straightforward (I think “limpid” is the nicer way of saying this), but throughout the book there are moments of bracing specificity. The translucent lines that distinguish his grandmother’s beautiful neck; the push-up contest his friends are engaged in when they hear the war has come to Mogbwemo, their hometown. Or this, as the 12-year-old Beah memorizes rap lyrics, trying to ignore the evidence of the gathering storm:

I remember sitting on the verandah listening to “Now That We Found Love” by Heavy D & The Boyz and watching the trees at the edge of town that reluctantly moved to the slow wind. The palms beyond them were still, as if awaiting something.

Which manages to execute, for me at least, a thrilling rhetorical maneuver: communicating foreboding; flirting with cliché; and also, exploding the cliché with a glancing reference that is both ridiculous and charming. And disarming. Because honestly, why shouldn’t listening to “the overweight lover Heavy D” on the verandah betoken existential foreboding for a 12-year-old kid in rural Sierra Leone? Sometimes the world is just the right amount with us.

Hip-hop turns out to be the frame and the catalyst for much of the narrative. Beah started rapping at the age of 8, after a fine old-school scene of instruction: Watching a music video on television, he and his brother marveled that “the black fellows knew how to speak English really fast, and to the beat.” Those fellows were the Sugar Hill Gang; the video, “Rapper’s Delight.” The night that the rebels attack Mogbwemo, he and his friends are out of town for a talent contest, their backpacks full of cassettes and lyric notebooks. More than once (!), the boys manage to avoid being killed by aggrieved locals only by proving that they are not themselves rebels—that is, by miming and dancing along to “OPP” by Naughty by Nature. Years later, after his descent to hell and back again, Beah goes to New York for a U.N. conference, worried that the city will be a “place where people drove in their sports cars looking for nightclubs and for violence.” (He is pleasantly disappointed.)

In any case, I am curious as to how the book strikes you, Elizabeth, as someone who has spent a lot of time with child soldiers. As someone who has spent a lot of time with, ah, books about child soldiers, especially novels, I was pretty blown away.