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

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Ishmael arrives in New York with conceptions of the city coming from his rap music. He expects it to be dangerous to walk the streets and so isn’t really looking forward to it. He is also surprised when he arrives in the middle of winter, because he doesn’t even know what the word winter means. He is wearing the light summer weight suit of his country, but it is absolutely freezing outside the airport, and it is also snowing. For some reason, Dr. Tamba has a jacket, but he and Bah do not. Nonetheless, when they enter the city, it seems to glitter with all its lights and the falling snow. Ishmael is completely overwhelmed. Furthermore, there are many, many people walking the streets, so Ishmael knows it is not as dangerous as he thought.

They arrive at the hotel and he has a room of his own for the first time in his life. Unfortunately, he doesn’t understand how to adjust the radiator and since it is set at its highest setting, he is soon roasting. He doesn’t understand a country where it is freezing cold outside and extremely warm inside. The first person he meets at the conference is a girl from Norway named Kristen who gives him a nametag. Unfortunately, in spite of her winning personality welcoming him to the conference, he cannot adjust to the food and wishes he had brought his own from home. The first morning at the conference, the attendees learned about each other’s lives and homes and Ishmael is sad to think that they all have to return to the dangerous countries they left. A short white woman stands up and announces that she is a storyteller. Her name is Laura Simms and Ishmael is determined to take her workshop. He is curious to know how a white woman in this country has come to be a storyteller.

That same morning, Laura keeps looking at Bah and Ishmael and finally asks them if they have winter jackets. When they tell her no, she returns that evening with coats, hats and gloves for both of them. This makes Ishmael very happy, because now he can venture out into the city. Both boys become close to Laura during the conference. When she becomes Ishmael’s mom years later, she will always talk about whether it was coincidence or destiny that Ishmael came from a storytelling culture to live with a storytelling mother in New York City. Ishmael eventually calls his uncle in Freetown. He lets his uncle listen to the sound of the city over the telephone and tells him it is excruciatingly cold. Uncle begins to laugh and tells him it is perhaps his initiation to the world of white people.

Every morning of the conference, they walk quickly through the snow to a room down the street. There they cast their sufferings aside and intelligently discuss solutions to the problems facing children in war-torn countries. Just discussing what they have suffered helps transform them. On the night of the second day, Ishmael and a boy named Madoka from Malawi walk along 47th Street and find themselves in Times Square. They are unbelievably amazed at what they see there. The lights, the huge television screens, and the crowds of people fascinate them. Later, they tell the other children about it and then, they all go out to Times Square every night. They also go to Rockefeller Center and the World Trade Center. When they ride the subway system, they are surprised at how quiet everyone is, because on their buses and trains, there is singing and dancing and a lot of talking. On every trip sightseeing, Ishmael makes mental notes to remember everything he sees to tell his uncle and his new family back home.

On the last day of the conference, a child from each country speaks briefly at the UN Economic and Social Council chamber about their own country and experiences. Ishmael had been given a pre-written speech, but he decides to speak from his heart. He emphasizes that “the problem that is affecting us children is the war that forces us to run away from our homes, lose our families, and aimlessly roam the forests.” After all the speeches are finished, the children sing a chant they have made up as well as other songs that make them cry, laugh, and dance. It is a deeply emotional afternoon. Laura later pulls Ishmael aside and tells him how moved she was by his speech. She invites the attendees, all fifty-seven of them, to her home that evening where they tell stories and dance into the night. As he looks around her home in the East Village, he doesn’t know or can even imagine that someday it is going to be his home. The next night, she accompanies Ishmael, Bah, and Dr. Tamba to the airport. She gives him her address and telephone number so they can keep in touch. As he walks away towards his airplane, Ishmael thinks about the fact that he will be just sixteen years old in eight days. What experiences he has had in his life! He is so pleased to have met people outside of Sierra Leone, because if he is killed when he returns home, he knows that a memory of his existence will be alive somewhere in the world.


Ishmael’s experiences in New York City are positive and emotional, and even though they will never wipe out the horrors he has faced, they show him there is a world where he can be safe and people who will remember his existence.

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