Study Guide

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier Family

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"I pray to the gods and ancestors that your family will always be together, even when one of you crosses into the spirit world. To family and community." The old man raised his open hands in the air. My father came over and stood by my mother and motioned for Junior and me to come closer. We did, and my father put his arms around us. The gathering clapped and a photographer took a few snapshots. I pressed my fingers on my eyelids to hold back my tears and wished that I could have my family together again. (7.3)

Ishmael's lost everything in the war, but the most important loss is his family. Even this memory of a happy moment—his naming ceremony—is tainted with sadness.

When I was very little, my father used to say, "If you are alive, there is hope for a better day and something good to happen. If there is nothing good left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die." I thought about these words during my journey, and they kept me moving even when I didn't know where I was going. Those words became the vehicle that drove my spirit forward and made it stay alive. (8.15)

Most of us remember things our parents have said when we were little, even if we didn't like hearing them at the time, or didn't understand them. We still carry them inside and think of them when we need them, like Ishmael did. 

We all began laughing. I wanted to leave right away, but we decided to spend the night in the village. Also, we wanted Saidu to rest, even though he kept telling us that he was fine. I was so happy that my mother, father, and two brothers had somehow found one another. Perhaps my mother and father have gotten back together, I thought. (10.84)

This happy moment is unfortunately a prelude to a sad one. You can imagine how much he's hoping that his family is alive and safe. For a child to imagine his family dead is unbearable.

"I look forward to getting to this village. Ah, I will give my mother a very tight hug." Alhaji smiled and then continued. "She always complains, though, when I give her a tight hug: 'If you love me, stop squeezing my old bones so I can be alive longer.' She is funny."

We giggled.

"I have a feeling that we will find our families, or at least news of them." Kanei stretched his hands as if trying to catch the sun. He looked at Alhaji, who was smiling uncontrollably. "I heard you have a beautiful sister. I am still just your friend, right?" We all started laughing. (11.1-3)

All the boys are cheered up by the thought that their families are nearby. Even though being with their parents and siblings doesn't change the reality that they're living in, being with the people they love will make their burden way, way lighter.

"Your parents and brothers will be happy to see you. They have been talking about you every day and praying for your safety. Your mother cries every day, begging the gods and ancestors to return you to her. Your older brother left to look for you, but he returned about a week ago. His face was sad when he returned. I think he blames himself for losing you." (11.21)

This is what Gasemu tells Ishmael as he approaches the village where his family is. It's a bittersweet moment in retrospect because it confirms Ishmael's hope—his family is so, so close by—and smashes them in the next moment when the village is attacked. Ishmael never does find out what happens to his family and he never has any hopes of seeing them again. This passage really drives home the pain families feel when they're separated.

My squad was my family, my gun was my provider and protector, and my rule was to kill or be killed. The extent of my thoughts didn't go much beyond that. We had been fighting for over two years, and killing had become a daily activity. I felt no pity for anyone. (15.1)

With his family totally gone, Ishmael turns to whatever group he can find to form a new "family." In this case, his fellow soldiers end up becoming like family to him. You know, like if you had family that carried guns, did drugs all day, and shot people. Dinnertime must be a disaster—you sure don't want to have an argument about politics with an armed family member.

I went outside with the blood all over me and saw my mother, father, older and younger brother. They were all smiling as if nothing had happened, as if we had been together all this time.

"Sit down, Mr. Troublesome," my father said.

"Don't mind him," my mother chuckled.

I sat down facing my father, but couldn't eat with them. My body had gotten numb, and my family didn't seem to notice that I was covered with blood. It began to rain and my family ran into the house, leaving me outside. I sat in the rain for a while, letting it clean the blood off me. I got up to go into the house, but it wasn't there. It had disappeared. I was looking around confused when I woke up from the dream.

I had fallen off my bed.

I got up and went outside and sat on the stoop looking into the night. I was still confused, as I couldn't tell whether I had had a dream or not. It was the first time I had dreamt of my family since I started running away from the war. (17.57-62)

Ishmael's dream is disturbing, but comforting, too. His family doesn't see the blood on him. They still love him, no matter what he's had to do in the name of staying alive. They still see him as the boy they knew.

"I feel as if there is nothing left for me to be alive for," I said slowly. "I have no family, it is just me. No one will be able to tell stories about my childhood." (18.1)

Ishmael tells this to Esther as he's slowly being rehabilitated. In a way, he's right, without a connection to his family, what does he matter? Who will remember him? He's afraid he'll have no connection to his past. Esther encourages him to find family in other places. Like with her, for instance.

"Welcome, my son," she said. She was a short woman with very dark skin, round cheekbones, and bright eyes. My uncle didn't have children of his own, so he raised the children of family members as his own. There were four of them—Allie, the oldest one; Matilda; Kona; and Sombo, the littlest, who was six years old. They had all stopped doing their chores and came onto the verandah to hug their "brother," as my uncle explained my relation to them.

"It is good to have another boy in the family," Allie said after he hugged me. (18.72-73)

Ishmael is nervous about how he will fit in with his uncle's family, but they embrace him as if he were their long-lost brother, which, in a way, he actually is. Family really does mean unconditional love. It reminds Shmoop of the poet Robert Frost who wrote that "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." Sounds like Ishmael felt right at home with his uncle.

"I am from Sierra Leone, and the problem that is affecting us children is the war that forces us to run away from our homes, lose our families, and aimlessly roam the forests. As a result, we get involved in the conflict as soldiers, carriers of loads, and in many other difficult tasks. All this is because of starvation, the loss of our families, and the need to feel safe and be part of something when all else has broken down. I joined the army really because of the loss of my family and starvation. I wanted to avenge the deaths of my family. I also had to get some food to survive, and the only way to do that was to be part of the army. It was not easy being a soldier, but we just had to do it. I have been rehabilitated now, so don't be afraid of me. I am not a soldier anymore; I am a child. We are all brothers and sisters. What I have learned from my experiences is that revenge is not good. I joined the army to avenge the deaths of my family and to survive, but I've come to learn that if I am going to take revenge, in that process I will kill another person whose family will want revenge; then revenge and revenge and revenge will never come to an end…" (28.20)

Ishmael's speech to the UN focuses on what exactly happens when people are separated from their families. Losing his family was the pivotal event in Ishmael's life; it turned him into a killer. Without the people they love to care for them and guide them, children are vulnerable to anyone who promises them food or safety, even if it's not true.

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