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

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Ishmael is infuriated being told what to do by the civilians. A few days before, they could have decided whether these people would live or die, so now they refuse to do anything but eat. At the end of every meal, the nurses and staff members come to talk to them about attending scheduled medical check-ups and the one-on-one counseling sessions in the psychosocial therapy center. They hate what these staff members are trying to do, so they attack them until they are basically left to wander about their new environment. That is the beginning of more violent behavior. They break into the hospital looking for drugs, but what medicines they find don’t give them the high they’re seeking. They also beat up people from the neighborhood and fight each other every day and night. They throw their mattresses out on the grass and the staffers always put them back. Finally, the mattresses are left in the rain and become soaked. They beat up the staff member who is in charge of supplies, because he won’t give them new mattresses. However, like all the other staff, he never shows anger about what they do and continues to smile and tell them that what they do isn’t their fault.

Ishmael’s migraines also return with a vengeance, but no one pays any attention to his pain, because they are all going through withdrawal. One day, the boys decide to break all the windows in the schoolroom. For some reason, Ishmael decides to break one window with his fist and pushes it back and forth through the window until he must be taken to the hospital. The nurse gently removes pieces of glass from his hand, but it doesn’t matter how gentle she is, because Ishmael feels no pain. She tries to find out his name and rub his head after she bandages his wounds. However, he won’t let her touch him.

The next day, Ishmael faints from a migraine and once again is taken to the hospital. He awakens and walks out again. Then, he faints a second time, and when he awakens this time, the nurse tells him he just shouldn’t leave again. Then, she injects him with a sedative to calm and he finally sleeps. Upon coming out of his induced sleep, Ishmael sees the same nurse and a lieutenant from the army sitting near his bed. It takes him back to his days as a junior lieutenant. He had been in charge of a small group of boys whose job was to scout potential villages that had food, drugs, fuel, and ammunition. Then, the entire squad would attack the village. On one of their expeditions, they came upon a village accidentally and decide that they must attack without the rest of the squadron. Alhaji put on his “Rambo” face and crawled towards the few guards. He killed them, but didn’t hide the bodies. As a result, the rebels were alerted and an all-out fight began. Ishmael and his friends killed everybody in the village even though many of the rebels ran away. They took cover in the nearby bushes and guarded the village. Two days later, the corporal and the rest of the squad arrived and carried the bundles of food and other supplies back to their base. After that, Alhaji became known as Little Rambo and Ishmael was nicknamed Green Snake because of the way he could sneak in the bushes and take out a whole village.

Now, Ishmael leaves the hospital once more. It has been more than a month since the withdrawal from drugs had started. There are still moments of vomiting and collapsing at unexpected moments, but by the end of the second month, the outbreaks end. They are still traumatized, however, because the memories of the war must now open. Ishmael turns on the water and sees blood. Boys will scream, “The rebels are coming!” when there is no one there. Some talk to rocks as if they are members of their dead families. They even ambush staff members and interrogate them as if they are prisoners.

During this time, the boys are given school supplies. The first time, they burn them. The supplies are replaced. They burn them again and again they are replaced. Finally, Mambu suggests that they take the supplies to the market and sell them. Their plan works and each boy gets his share of the money. Now that they have money, Ishmael, Mambu and Alhaji plan a trip to Freetown. They sneak out of the rehabilitation center and take the bus to town. There is singing and dancing on the bus and in the city, there are so many exciting things to see. They all follow Ishmael’s lead through the streets of Freetown as if he is still their squad leader and when they have no money to ride the bus home, he tells them they will just jump off and run away. The boys begin to sneak out so often to go to the city that the staff has no choice but to plan weekend trips for all the boys. Of course, Ishmael and his friends sneak out during the week as well.

Eventually, no one in the market wants to buy the school supplies anymore, so the boys go to class out of sheer boredom. They torture the teacher with their disrespectful behavior, but he smiles says it’s not their fault. “At night, some of them wake up from nightmares, sweating, screaming, and punching their own heads to drive out the images that continue to torment them even when they are no longer asleep.” Every morning, several of them are found hiding in the grasses by the soccer field. They don’t remember how they got there.

It takes several months for Ishmael to relearn how to sleep without the aid of medicine. But falling asleep doesn’t take away the nightmares. He tries desperately at these times to think about his childhood, but he can’t. The war memories have formed a barrier that he must break in order to think about any moments in his life before the war.

When the rainy season begins, it prompts more war memories for Ishmael. He is reminded of the time they searched during the rainy season for a village where they could take refuge from the downpours. Moriba, one of his friends, had just been killed in a firefight, but mourning the dead wasn’t part of the business of killing and trying to stay alive. They keep walking for weeks until they find a village where they can stay. They come under fire from the rebels who already hold it, but they counterattack immediately. Then, they follow the retreating rebels to find their base. They fight all day in the rain against this group and to Ishmael, the rain washes the blood off the leaves of the forest, cleansing its surface, but the dead bodies pour blood on top of the soaked soil as if the soil refused to absorb any more blood for that day.

They finally came to the outskirts of the rebel base and decide to employ “hit and run, kill, kill,” tactics which they repeat throughout the night. In the morning, they take over the base where they finally begin to dry out from the rain. However, they only hold it for a few minutes when the rebels attack again. They went and ended this attack for good and decided in their anger at the rebels that instead of just killing them, they would punish them. This was one of the boys’ most horrible behavior – they buried the rebel prisoners alive. Afterwards, Ishmael looked at his body and all the bruises on it. It turned out they were caused by bullets that had torn his flesh, but missed killing him. He had been too drugged and traumatized to realize the danger of what had just happened. However, he just laughed.

The next morning, in the present, Ishmael feels a staff member place a blanket around him and say, “This isn’t your fault, you know. It really isn’t. You’ll get though this.”


Ishmael’s withdrawal from the drugs is interspersed with the horror of his war memories. He has a hard time with anyone showing him emotions and he hates being touched. He fights with everyone and had times when he is found hiding in the tall grass as if he were still in the war. Humanizing him and the other boys is a long, tortuous process.

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