This is a great YA novel that I read last year, and I never got around to reviewing it because I was busy moving and such. But if you were on the internet at all during 2012, you’ve heard of Joseph Kony. The accused Ugandan warlord was the subject of a video documentary by the group Invisible Children that quickly (and I mean very quickly) went viral. I have to admit that I’m probably one of three that hasn’t watched the video yet, and I don’t know if I ever will.
Now that I’ve admitted my faults in not watching a video “that everyone must obviously watch”, I’ll tell you about the book that I read last year. A Long Way Gone is the true autobiography of Ishmael Beah, who now speaks out against child armies. At a very young age, to escape from attacking rebels in Sierra Leone, he wanders the jungles for several months with a couple other young boys before he is picked up by the governmental army as a boy soldier, with promises of money and a safe place to stay. Things do not really improve for him, as he becomes addicted to drugs and is put through intense military training. The soldiers force them to watch while they kill innocent villagers, and they praise the boys who step up and begin taking lives themselves. When Beah is initially horrified by what he sees and does, a soldier tells him “You will get used to it, everybody does eventually.”
And the sad part is that he does. There are several chapters that are very difficult to read because he becomes completely hardened to violence, and even seems to enjoy it. Eventually he gets picked up by UNICEF forces, who “buy” him from the army and put him through counseling and rehabilitation. Now, he tells his story in order to save other young boys from suffering the same fate, and to help stop the loosely organized armies on both sides that are terrorizing and murdering innocent bystanders.
It’s always really hard to read about children experiencing violence; it strikes a deep chord in my heart to know that it still goes on in many parts of the world, and who knows how long it will be before we can stop it? But more than just a violent story about his hard beginnings, while some people disliked the story’s rather distant and disjointed voice, I liked it. Rather than coming off as unemotional or inexpressive as many people thought, personally it spoke to me of truth: I highly doubt that it could be easy for someone to have undergone such violent and traumatic events to be able to tell his story without having to relive the horror again. By telling it simplistically, it is left to the readers to imagine just how emotionally and physically difficult it would be to overcome those memories. And while some people were reading the novel for it’s detailed look at child violence and boy soldiers, the story is more about the healing and restoration that Ishmael seeks after he is rescued. And the frank and simple way he outlines that process, from drug recovery to his emotional recuperation leaves us open to wonder at just how difficult it must be for anyone, let alone a child, to overcome that.
It just made me feel so lucky and blessed to have a safe home, a job, and a loving family. That I had a fond childhood, and that I can be free to do goofy, childish things when I so desire. But of all the childish things I do, I hope that I never lose a child’s simple generosity, and that I can remember and try to help those children in any way I can, because remember, while reading a book or watching a YouTube video may alert you to the problem, unless you take action than it’s as useless as if you hadn’t seen/read it at all.