Study Guide

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier Innocence

By Ishmael Beah

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Some nights I saw the head of a man [in the moon]. He had a medium beard and wore a sailor's hat. Other times I saw a man with an ax chopping wood, and sometimes a woman cradling a baby at her breast. Whenever I get a chance to observe the moon now, I still see those same images I saw when I was six, and it pleases me to know that that part of my childhood is still embedded in me. (1.44)

One of the things that always comforts Ishmael are memories of his childhood. Here, he thinks about seeing images and stories in the moon. When he can remember these things from long ago, he knows his innocence hasn't been totally stomped out of him. He seems to like the person he is when he thinks about the moon.

Our innocence had been replaced by fear and we had become monsters. There was nothing we could do about it. Sometimes we ran after people shouting that we were not what they thought, but this made them more scared. We hoped to ask people for directions. It was impossible. (8.20)

Ismael and his six friends might just be a group of pre-teen boys, but people see them as a threat. They can't understand why people are afraid of them. There are no more innocent little kids in this war. There's only danger.

"Are you still a troublesome boy?" He pulled on my nose.

"There is no time to be troublesome these days," I said.

"I see that you look very sad. Your forehead used to glow naturally when you were just a child. Your parents and I used to discuss how unusual that was. We thought it was because you were happy all the time.

Your mother said you even smiled while you slept. But when you started your troublesomeness and were angry, your forehead glowed even more. We didn't have any other explanations for your forehead and how it related to your character. And here you are, it isn't shining anymore." (11.16-19)

Gasemu remembers Ishmael from when he was a happy little boy, but he can see that something's changed about him. The happy and passionate boy whose face used to glow is gone. Someone else has replaced him now, someone much more adult and jaded.

Gradually the smiles on people's faces assured us that there was nothing to worry about anymore. All that darkened the mood of the village was the sight of orphaned children. There were over thirty boys between the ages of seven and sixteen. I was one of them. Apart from this, there were no indications that our childhood was threatened, much less that we would be robbed of it. (12.4)

In Yele, Ishmael and his friends are able to reclaim some of their innocence… for a while. Of course, they're just about to be recruited into the army, so goodbye childhood innocence.

My childhood had gone by without my knowing, and it seemed as if my heart had frozen. I knew that day and night came and went because of the presence of the moon and the sun, but I had no idea whether it was a Sunday or a Friday. (15.1)

Ishmael believes that part of the innocence of childhood is being trusting and open-hearted. He's not like that anymore.

She did neither, but said, "None of what happened was your fault. You were just a little boy, and anytime you want to tell me anything, I am here to listen." She stared at me, trying to catch my eye so she could assure me of what she had just said. (17.38)

Ishmael hears this line all the time from the people in rehab and is pretty sick of hearing it. But this time, it sinks in. In our own justice system in the U.S., most kids up to a certain age aren't judged the same as adults, because we assume they don't really understand the consequences of their actions. Plus, they're really vulnerable to being influenced by adults.

That night, as I sat on the verandah listening to some of the boys discuss the volleyball game I had missed, I tried to think about my childhood days, but it was impossible, as I began getting flashbacks of the first time I slit a man's throat. (17.40)

This is a very powerful passage—notice how it jumps from a vision of innocence to "slit a man's throat." Here at Shmoop, we call that the literary technique of juxtaposition. (Impress your teachers.) It heightens the contrast between the two phases of his life.

We sat together on the stoop and briefly talked about our childhood pranks. "Sometimes I think about those great times we had dancing at talent shows, practicing new dances, playing soccer until we couldn't see the ball… It seems like all those things happened a very long time ago. It is really strange, you know," he said, looking away for a bit.

"I know, I know…" I said.

"You were a troublesome boy," he reminded me.

"I know, I know…"

It would be strange, wouldn't it, if you grew up with someone and then were separated for years by war? Mohamed and Ishmael reminisce about childhood, but have to acknowledge that something has changed. They're not the kids they once were. Even though it wasn't that long ago that they were dancing and playing soccer, it seems like another lifetime.

Some of the children had risked their life to attend the conference. Others had walked hundreds of miles to neighboring countries to be able to get on a plane. Within minutes of talking to each other, we knew that the room was filled with young people who had had a very difficult childhood, and some were going to return to these lives at the end of the conference. After the introductions, we sat in a circle so that the different facilitators could tell us about themselves. (20.13)

For the first time, Ishmael realizes that he and his friends are not the only children in the world suffering. War has stolen the innocence of so many children. That's the whole point of the U.N. conference.

But on the first day of school in Freetown, all the students sat apart from us, as if Mohamed and I were going to snap any minute and kill someone. Somehow they had learned that we had been child soldiers. We had not only lost our childhood in the war but our lives had been tainted by the same experiences that still caused us great pain and sadness. (21.4)

Yeah, it doesn't really end. Ishmael and Mohamed are trying to do the most kid thing possible—go to school—but even their classmates see them as dangerous. They can never get back the years they lost, but they can move on with their lives as much as possible.

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