A Long Way Gone Summary and Analysis
by Ishmael Beah
The compound nurse begins to show a special interest in Beah, leading Alhaji to tease him that she “likes” him. Beah ponders her motives but cannot comprehend them. He becomes angry when she asks him his name (because he knows she knows it), but when he tells her his name she tells him her own: Esther. She expresses a desire to be his friend, but only if she can trust him. Throughout their subsequent visits, Esther turns the tables on Beah by making it seem that he needs to earn her trust rather than the other way around. Beah responds to her overtures, particularly when she buys him a Walkman cassette player and rap tapes. She keeps the player and tapes in her office so that the other boys will not attempt to take it from him, offering Beah an open invitation to come in to listen any time.
Beah eventually opens up to Esther and recounts his experience being ambushed by rebels in the forest. In the bloody firefight Beah is shot three times in the foot; he awakens to find the sergeant doctor treating him and doing all in his power to make sure Beah survives the injuries. Beah states that this is the moment he realized his loyalty to the military would stay strong. Once the doctor is able to remove the bullet lodged in Beah’s foot, the boy begins recovering. Before he is fully mobile, he leaves his bed and asks for his weapon back. He gets it and fires off some practice rounds while bracing himself against a wall. Three weeks later rebels attack their base; they are repelled or killed, with a few captured and brought back to the base. Lieutenant Jabati identifies the captives as men responsible for the wounds to Beah’s foot. Beah shoots them in their feet and watches them suffer all day before delivering mortal shots to their heads that night because he is tired of hearing them cry.
Beah surprises himself by opening up to Esther in this way; however, Esther responds with the common refrain, “None of what happened was your fault.” This angers Beah, who feels that the “not your fault” line shows a lack of understanding of the boys’ maturity. That night Beah attempts to recall his childhood, but all he can remember is the first time he slit a man’s throat. He has a severe migraine that night and cannot sleep for fear of nightmares.
In the UNICEF compound, Beah finally begins to trust someone. He had learned through hard experience that circumstances would collaborate to cause him harm; even in the military, where he learned comradeship through blood spilled, Beah found that he could be betrayed: “People like the lieutenant, whom I had obeyed and trusted, had made me question trusting anyone, especially adults” (p. 153). When even a man who held others’ lives in his hands could turn traitor (by sending Beah with the UNICEF workers), there was no one left in Beah’s world to confide in. He has learned that “people befriended only to exploit one another” (p. 153).
Esther manages to overcome this barrier through a combination of reverse psychology and patience. She challenges Beah to earn her trust, rather than offering to earn his; she also waits for him to be ready to talk, rather than insisting he answer her questions. Her knowledge of his pre-war interests (gleaned from the questionnaires the boys answered in class) allow her build a bridge to Beah - one which eventually allows him to speak plainly to her.
When he confides in Esther his terrible experience in taking vengeance upon the rebels who shot him in the foot, he is ostensibly giving her background for where his scars originated. However, what he is really doing is tearing down the wall he has erected to protect himself from harm. This one crack in the wall allows him to eventually speak much more openly and begin to feel the emotions he has long tried to suppress.
At one point, Beah attempts to remember his childhood. However, “it was impossible, as I began getting flashbacks of the first time I slit a man’s throat” (p. 160). Beah’s use of flashbacks throughout the preceding chapters has been building to this moment; his memories as a fugitive from the rebel onslaught are always of his childhood, of happier times and memories which keep him stable in an unstable world. Once he is inducted into the military - or as he puts it, once his childhood is destroyed - he no longer employs flashbacks to his youth. From this point on in the memoir, his flashbacks are all of bloody confrontations and violent fates met by both rebels and soldiers alike. The war has truly destroyed his childhood by denying him access even to the memories of his happier youth.
At the end of the chapter, Beah tells Esther “about the shapes I used to see in the moon when I was much younger” (p. 166). This breakthrough moment marks the return of his positive childhood memories (echoing the first flashback of hope from Chapter 1) and the beginning of his healing process. Esther's gift of a Walkman and rap tapes to replace those destroyed in the war also symbolize a new start. Perhaps Beah can rediscover and reclaim his childhood through her help.
A Long Way Gone Essays and Related Content
- A Long Way Gone: Major Themes
- A Long Way Gone: Questions
- A Long Way Gone: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Ishmael Beah: Biography
- A Long Way Gone Summary
- About A Long Way Gone
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Quotes and Analysis
- Summary and Analysis of Prologue: New York City, 1998
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 1
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 2
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 3
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 4
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 5
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 6
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 7
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 8
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 9
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 10
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 11
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 12
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 13
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 14
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 15
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 16
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 17
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 18
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 19
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 20
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 21
- Sierra Leone Civil War
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- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
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