Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Writing about the Unimaginable

In his award-winning book on the War in Vietnam,The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien blends fact with fiction because as he confesses “it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen . . . there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.”

Ishmael Beah’s 2007 memoir A Long Way Gone has come under scrutiny. Some challenge the time period insisting he couldn’t have spent two years as a boy soldier; others question specific events, including when the attack on his village that killed his parents and sibliings occurred and the death of six people at the refugee camp where Beah was taken when first removed from the war zone.

By his own admission, Beah and the other boys were kept drugged during their time as soldiers and, as they were constantly at war, keeping track of days, weeks or years would have been of small import. The question is whether the essence of his story is true and of that there seems to be little doubt.

Stories like Beah’s can not be made up. They tell of things which are unimaginable and inexplicable when all semblance of civilization breaks down. Few survive such conditions much less become rehabilitated and are able to share their stories.

Journalists may question specific parts of Beah’s memoir, but as O’Brien suggests who, what, why and when cannot get at the heart of the story. Nor in many cases are those facts discoverable.

Reading A Long Way Gone we wonder why Sierra Leone devolved into civil war? Who were the combatants? Why was it ignored for so long by the West? What are the long-term consequences of fifteen years and the loss of one-third of its population to the fighting?

Beah doesn’t answer those questions, nor should he be expected to do so. He tells us what he experienced, the way it seemed. That’s enough for me.

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