February 12, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

A Long Way Gone

Current Status
In Season
Ishmael Beah
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Memoir, War
We gave it a B+

Americans tend to regard African conflicts as somewhat vague events signified by horrendous concepts — massacres, genocide, mutilation — that are best kept safely at a distance. Such a disconnect might prove impossible after reading A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah’s account of his life as a teenage soldier during Sierra Leone’s civil war of the 1990s.

We get only a brief glimpse of the joyous, hip-hop-loving Beah before the madness starts. A dozen pages in, he is watching a woman cradle her bullet-riddled baby. Things only get worse. Walking hundreds of miles to flee rebels, Beah is eventually snagged by army forces who use child soldiers eager for revenge against those who have slaughtered their families. Hopped up on marijuana and brown-brown (cocaine mixed with gunpowder), fed a steady diet of American killfest movies like Rambo, Beah proves a particularly effective soldier — in one case winning a throat-slicing contest.

Gone is a clear-eyed, undeniably compelling look at wartime violence — whose viciousness becomes profoundly disturbing when one realizes it’s been committed by boys barely in their teens. Beah and his mates are eventually rescued and sent to a UNICEF-affiliated rehab center (he leaves Africa at 17 and later graduates from Oberlin College), resulting in a happy ending of sorts. Yet Gone finds its power in the revelation that under the right circumstances, people of any age can find themselves doing the most unthinkable things. B+

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