Study Guide

Esther in A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

By Ishmael Beah

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If Esther appeared in one of Ishmael's dreams, we'd probably guess that she was an angel. She's a nurse at Benin Center and is the first person who's able to get through to Ishmael after he leaves the battlefield. That's no small task.

She does it by helping him over and over again. Ishmael first meets her when he's rushed to the nurse's office with glass stuck in his hand. Ishmael is forced to let her treat him (he can't just walk around with shards of glass in him) and she invites him back the next day. Ishmael spends a lot of time rebuffing her kindness. Who does this nice lady think she is anyway? Mother Teresa? The nerve of her…

"My name is Esther and we should be friends."

"Are you sure you want to be friends with me?" I asked. She thought for a while and said, "Maybe not."

I was quiet for a bit, as I didn't know what to say and also didn't trust anyone at this point in my life. I had learned to survive and take care of myself. I had done just that for most of my short life, with no one to trust, and frankly, I liked being alone, since it made surviving easier. People like the lieutenant, whom I had obeyed and trusted, had made me question trusting anyone, especially adults. I was very suspicious of people's intentions. I had come to believe that people befriended only to exploit one another. So I ignored the nurse and began to stare out the window. (17.9-11)

But Esther keeps soldiering on with this boy soldier. When she discovers that Ishmael used to love rap music, she buys him some cassettes and a Walkman. Ishmael is pretty amazed that she has all this info, but Esther obviously knows what she's doing and how to get the information she needs to treat these wounded and broken boys.

Over the next few months, Ishmael comes to trust Esther deeply. She's the first person he opens up to about his experiences in the war. He's haunted by what he's done, but afraid of the rejection that sure to come once he tells other people what happened. Esther has no judgment for Ishmael. In fact, she's sad for him. She cries for him. She tells him it's not his fault and, for the first time, Ishmael starts to believe that might be truth.

In the end, Ishmael leaves the rehabilitation center and comes to Esther's house to visit her one last time. Esther can't talk long, but it's a really lovely moment:

She looked me straight in the eyes. "Come and see me next weekend so we can have more time to catch up, okay?" she said. She was wearing her white uniform and was on her way to take on other traumatized children. It must be tough living with so many war stories. I was just living with one, mine, and it was difficult, as the nightmares about what had happened continued to torment me. Why does she do it? Why do they all do it? I thought as we went our separate ways. It was the last time I saw her. I loved her but never told her. (19.5)

Here Ishmael finally understands the weight of what Esther has taken on. It's not only what she's done for him, but what she continues to do for other boy soldiers out there. He sees goodness again in the world through Esther. If she can help others, maybe Ishmael can, too. We believe that Ishmael Beah's real life charity work was inspired by Esther and all she did to help so many people.

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