While I did find this book painful to read, I am very glad I stayed with it. Ishmael tells his story in casual language, almost as if he were sitting next to you, sharing his experiences over (many cups of) tea. He relays his life to us chronologically, beginning in his home village. He and some friends took a multi- day trip to a neighboring village to show off their hip-hop skills at a talent show. Little did they know, that little trip probably saved their lives. For while they were away, the rebel army attacked their home village.
From there, we follow Ishmael and his friends as they try to find their families (all had to flee the village – literally running for their lives). It is a long, dangerous road they walked, and they suffered countless difficulties as they try to find somewhere safe to stay while struggling to meet the barest of necessities. Readers get the sense of walking through a tunnel with no light. You really feel the desperation, the loneliness and despair that descended upon this poor little boy. Much of the book is about this time of wandering, going hungry, being ill-met by other villages who suspect these young, homeless friends of being a wandering squad of rebel child-soldiers. They are met with suspicion at best, hostility at worst.
It is actually understandable when Ishmael is manipulated into fighting with the government army. He is finally in a village that feels safe, he is eating, there are soldiers protecting the village, that is until the rebels surround the village, leaving no path for escape. All males (even 6 or 8 year olds) must fight for their lives in the army, or die.
It begins as such, fighting for the “good side,” the ones who did not kill his family, and fighting to defend himself. But, as this brief portion of the book tells us, he quickly descended into the much darker side of warfare, where the good and bad guys are not so easily discerned. When did he cross the line and become someone who kills some other little boy’s family? It is so painful, so sad.
But Ishmael does not delve too deeply into the emotions behind his motivations and reactions. Nor does he tell us much about how he has come to reconcile with himself. He tells us some, and maybe this is my psych degree, but I want to know more. I hope he is able to go deeper within himself. I don’t need to read about it, but I hope he can because I want him to truly be alright now. You will, too, because no feeling human can read this book and not find themselves truly caring about this young man.
And now I think of the other children still out there, still being coerced into fighting the wars of horrible adult men. I want to help them, which is, I imagine, part of Ishmael’s hope.
Don’t wait for the cheaper paperback, this is a book to read now – you will want to talk to people about it. Prepare to be stirred.
Reviewed by M. Babiker