Beah's A Long Way Gone: Summary, Setting & Quotes

Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

'A Long Way Gone' is Ishmael Beah's autobiography of his life as a child soldier. This journey takes us from the first moments of life as a scared young boy to his rehabilitation when he begins to speak out against the horrors inflicted on so many boys like him.

The Setting

A Long Way Gone takes place in Sierra Leone between 1993 and 1997. The memoir is the story of a twelve year old boy's forced experience as a child soldier during the country's civil war, where he was forced to fight for the military. Through first-hand accounts we are witness to the measures taken to force these children to fight.

Ishmael Beah
Ishmael Beah

Ishmael's Story Begins

In A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah tells his story as a series of flashbacks, He says, 'These days I live in three worlds: my dreams, and the experiences of my new life...' We are witness to grim and vivid details about the life of a child soldier. It was either fight or die.

Beah and his friends have gone to take part in a talent show, so they are away from the village when the rebel army attacks. The people of his village stood little chance against the rebels. The boys attempt to go back to help the village, but when they come face to face with the horrors of this war, they realize they cannot go home. Ishmael questions the situation he finds himself in when he says, 'Is there an end to this madness, and is there any future for him beyond the bushes?' He must make his own future.

Beah and his band of friends stay one step ahead of the rebels, trying to keep themselves free from their grasp, and for a few months, they are successful. They run, hide, and are finally allowed to stay with some sympathetic villagers in Kamator where Beah's aunt lives. This is the last place Beah sees his brother, Junior. Beah is lonely, and he suffers greatly because of all the losses.

There is a poignant moment in the story when Beah meets up with Gasemu, someone he knew from his village. Gasemu tells Beah that his family has been looking for him. Ishmael is impatient to reach the village to see his family, but Gasemu is walking very slowly. As they are walking, they hear gunshots.

When it is safe to enter the village, they find burned bodies and houses. Beah does not see anyone who looks like his family. Finally in another part of the village, Gasemu shows Beah a house where his family had been staying, but it is burned beyond all recognition. Beah's rage is uncontrollable. He beats Gasemu, blaming him, but Gasemu says, 'None of this is anyone's fault.'

The Military

After days of wandering, the boys are captured by the military. They are told by the lieutenant, 'We need the help of able boys and men to fight these rebels. This is your time to revenge the deaths of your families.' They find themselves being trained to fight with AK-47s.

Indoctrinated into the role and life of a soldier, Lt. Jabati teaches them how to use their bayonets, and when they did so without much force, he shows them how to stab with enough force to kill the enemy. The Lt. wielded his bayonet while shouting and stabbing the banana tree. He tells him to stab the enemy in the vital places like the heart. Then he tells them he would pluck out his eyes. He says killing the enemy will help avenge the deaths of his loved ones.

The Lt. tries to get them to 'see' the people who had destroyed their families. He wants them to grab their hate and use it to their advantage. He expects them to treat their weapon as their new best friend. Beah learnes this lesson. The rebels are evil and deserve to die. Lt. Jabati tells them, 'They do not deserve to live. That is why we must kill every single one of them.'

They are given a small white pill and told to take it before they head out. 'The corporal said it will boost your energy, the soldier announced with a secretive smile on his face.' This was Beah's introduction to brainwashing and drugs.

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