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Study Guide: A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah: Book Summary

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A LONG WAY GONE: LITERARY ANALYSIS - ISHMAEL BEAH

OVERALL ANALYSIS

CHARACTER ANALYSIS

Ishmael Beah

Ishmael is a wonderful young man who becomes a victim of a devastating civil war in Sierra Leone. Like most other civilians, he is a victim of a terror campaign on the part of both sides of the war. Millions of civilians die in this conflict and in that way, Ishmael is lucky, because he lives. However, he comes out of the experience as a boy soldier badly damaged. He has lost his family to the rebel atrocities just before he has the chance to be reunited. He sees friends and comrades die the most horrible deaths before his eyes, he lives in horrible conditions day in and day out, and most of the time, he sees little hope that his existence will ever change.

Fortunately, he is taken away to a rehabilitation center by UNICEF staffers who work with him relentlessly to help him find the true child he left behind. Of course, it is his own inner desire to be something more, to overcome the barriers placed in front of him that ultimately means the difference between returning to the war and finding a new home in New York City. He then uses his inner strength to finish his education and go to work at the UN as an advocate for other children forced to face the horrors of war.


Esther

She is the young nurse who works at Benin House where Ishmael enters rehabilitation. She sees something worth saving in all the boys who come there, but she sees something even more in Ishmael. She gradually works on him to become her friend and trust again. She recognizes that saving him may be through his beloved rap music and uses that to pull out his lost memories of life before the war. She shows him he can be successful in finding a new life and cheers him on, listens to him, and loves him when he needs it most.

Alhaji

Although he is a war comrade, he becomes Ishmael’s family while they experience the horrors of the civil war together. He thinks of himself as Rambo and fights in imitation of this character, which may be why he survives like Ishmael. IN the course of their experiences, they become very close and they watch each other’s backs throughout all their battles. When Ishmael finally leaves for his uncle’s home, it is Alhaji who embraces him instead of just shaking his hand. This memory will sustain Ishmael later, because he never sees this great friend again.

Uncle Tommy

Although Ishmael never met his father’s brother; the man never hesitates when Ishmael needs a home after Benin House to open his door to his young nephew. He is always smiling and laughing, and he and his family offer more than just a roof over Ishmael’s head. They offer emotional sustenance that Ishmael sorely needs. They call him their son from the beginning and encourage him to do what makes him feel safe and wanted. IN the end, when Uncle Tommy dies for lack of medical help, Ishmael weeps by his grave all day, talking quietly to the man who had come to mean to much to him.

The Lieutenant

Even though he is almost an evil character, this man had an obvious impact on Ishmael’s life. He motivated him to fight the rebels, and through his own bloodthirsty example, he showed the boys how to survive. He also had a softer side: he loved to read Shakespeare and discuss the plays with Ishmael who had memorized long speeches from the Bard’s works. This is the side that Ishmael most appreciates and never forgets in spite of the horrors that also define the man.


PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS

This is a nonfiction work. As such the story is described in a largely chronological and normal order. The narrative opens with Ishmael in high school in the United States speaking to fellow students who really want him to relate his experiences in war. He tells them he might do that someday, but for now, he keeps that time to himself. The narration then goes on to relate Ishmael’s experiences as a boy soldier in twenty-one chapters followed by a chronology of the history of Sierra Leone, showing the end of the civil war and the arrest of former president Charles Taylor for war crimes.


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