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

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Ishmael walks for two days without sleeping. He feels as if someone if after him and everything seems awkwardly brutal. He passes through burnt villages where bodies are scattered everywhere. He sees fear in the eyes of the dead, heads cut off with machetes, heads smashes with bricks, and rivers filled with so much blood that have ceased to flow. Ishmael increases his pace and on the third day, finds himself in the middle of a thick forest. He finds a suitable tree that isn’t too high to climb. The leaves are woven together to form something like a hammock, and he spends the night in arms of those trees, between earth and sky.

The next day he is determined to fins his way out of the forest. He begins to walk again and along the way, he comes across a huge black snake which retreats behind a bush. He then walks more diligently only to find himself back where he started. He is hopelessly lost. So, knowing it will take awhile to find his way out, he familiarizes himself with his immediate vicinity. He decides that even though he is lost and lonely, at least it is safe for the time being. Later, Ishmael sees the birds eating from a ripe fruit that he had never seen before. He decides to try it and eats many of them, hoping they will not poison him. It reminds him of how his grandfather used to make medicine for him. One was a medicine that would help him remember his lessons and to this day, Ishmael had a photographic memory. Another was a medicinal leaf that could remove poison from the body, although Ishmael sees none of them. His grandmother had even taught him how to rub two particular grasses together to make soap. These memories became part of the wonders of his childhood. Now he does everything he can not to think about anything that will make him remember the horrors of the most recent months of his life.

The most difficult part of being in the forest for Ishmael is the loneliness. He spends most of his time fighting himself mentally in order to avoid thinking about what he has seen and where his life is going. He is even afraid to sleep because the images will haunt his dreams. Finally, he begins to walk again, noting that the trees seem to be getting taller and bigger. He is afraid he won’t be able to climb one if he needs to. Fortunately, he finds one just when he need to. His next adversary becomes wild pigs that at one point chase him for about a half a mile. Once again, he is reminded of his childhood and a story his grandmother told about how wild pigs had come to hate humans. A human hunter knew of a plant that allowed him to change himself into a wild boar. He would lure real pigs where he could kill them after he changed himself back into a human. One of the pigs saw him eat the plant and the pigs then destroyed every plant so the hunter couldn’t change himself back. They then tore him to pieces. It is a perfect metaphor for Ishmael’s own countrymen who have turned against the innocent among them.

Once again, Ishmael begins to walk all night and day. He sees another snake and remembers the medicine against snakebites that his grandfather had inserted into his skin. However, now he doubts the power of the medicine and runs in fear from them. What keeps him going are his father’s words, “If you are alive, there is hope for a better day and something good to happen.”

Ishmael spends a month in the forest before he sees anyone again. This time he arrives at the same junction as six other boys, three of which lived in his home village. They had known each other even though they weren’t friends. They tell him they are heading for a village called Yele in Bonthe that they have heard is safe, because they have heard it is occupied by the Sierra Leone Armed Forces. Ishmael quietly begins to follow them a safe distance behind. He realizes that he’s become uncomfortable being around people. One of the older boys taps him on the shoulder and tells Ishmael, “Circumstances will change and things will be fine, just hold on a little more.” Nonetheless, he still worries about being with such a large group of boys and yet, he stays with them because he doesn’t want to be alone anymore. His innocence has been replaced by fear and like the others, he has become a monster.

They travel for more than six days when they come in contact with a very old man who can barely walk. He explains that everyone in his village had run away when they heard they a group of seven boys were on their way. They explain to him whom they really are and where they really want to go. He tells them about some yams in the neighboring hut and asks them to cook some for him and them. When they are finished eating, he says, “My children, this country has lost its good heart.” Then he draws a map in the dirt for them to show them how to get to Yele. However, he won’t tell them his name, because he says he wants to save a place in their memories for other things. He knows he will surely die, because he cannot walk away from his village, but he is not afraid for himself, only for the boys.

Because of the rumor about the “seven boys,” Ishmael and his new group of friends find themselves in numerous situations where they have to prove they are no danger to the people. However, the men in these villages still watch them carefully, and the mothers grab their children and run home. It fulfills the old man’s assertion that the country has lost its good heart.


This chapter reinforces Ishmael’s loneliness and sorrow. He reminisces frequently about a peaceful, serene childhood and wills himself not to think about the atrocities he has seen. Nonetheless, he faces danger not only from the rebels who will recruit him into their army, but also the angry, fearful citizens who trust no one.

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