Ishmael Beah took bestseller, best of the year, and school reading lists by storm in 2007 with his memoir of being swept up in Sierra Leone’s civil war as a child soldier. It almost seems anti-climactic to mention that A Long Way Gone won an Alex Award. Seven years later it is still a popular suggestion for teen and adult readers, and is widely known to be an effective recommendation for reluctant readers.
So, the publication of Beah’s first novel is an event. And I have to add that I am personally thrilled that it has potential teen appeal, even though most of its characters are adult. There is something in Beah’s writing that is youthful, that allows the reader to feel hope even as he describes the worst of circumstances. Here he examines the aftermath of the civil war by focusing on one small village in Sierra Leone, Imperi, whose residents are slowly returning. What can be recovered? What is lost? How do the survivors deal with their guilt?
In an interview on NPR, Beah offers intriguing, sometimes unexpected answers about elements of his novel. For example about the rehabilitation of child soldiers, “What do you do with certain skill sets and certain habits and certain things that you’ve acquired during war? Sometimes some of these things don’t need to be washed out of you, as most people will think. Whenever they see a former child soldier, they will think, “Oh, you need complete rehabilitation. You need to forget everything that happened in order to have a life.” No, sometimes you don’t.”
In 2010, FSG’s Works in Progress published a “conversation” between publisher Sarah Crichton and the author, which is still linked from his website. I find it fascinating because it addresses the effects of A Long Way Gone‘s huge success on Beah’s life. (No wonder it has taken years for him to complete a new book. He’s been busy!) They also discuss the possibility of a second memoir, and whether Radiance of Tomorrow is actually fictional.
* BEAH, Ishmael. Radiance of Tomorrow. 256p. Sarah Crichton: Farrar. Jan. 2014. Tr $25. ISBN 9780374246020; ebk. ISBN 9780374709433.
Adult/High School–Beah’s second book is richly complex, exploring the moral and ethical dilemmas facing a variety of characters in the aftermath of war. The novel opens with two elders coming back to the devastated village they called home, Imperi, Sierra Leone. They set about removing skulls, bones, and dead bodies from the river and reviving their old way of life. They are beginning to be successful when a mining company moves in. Corruption abounds. Teens Colonel and Ernest are in the background, but they are key. Two of the most empowered characters, they clearly see and ingeniously navigate the corruption. Colonel puts himself in charge of the former child soldiers and orphans. He houses and feeds them, creates order, and finds a way to pay for them to go to school. He creatively and outrageously solves some of the more dismal problems facing the village, providing hope and real change. For example, he waylays the men who have been raping the women on their drunken way home, takes their clothes off, puts food on their private parts to attract biting ants, and ties them to a tree. During the war, Ernest was forced to chop off not only his family’s arms and hands, but also those of many others. Directly responsible for maiming one such family, he follows them to Imperi. Without their knowing, he takes care of them by fetching water and setting it by their door. Teens who loved A Long Way Gone ( Sarah Crichton, 2007)–and that’s a lot of them–will find this one slower moving yet equally powerful.–Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA