The story begins in 1993. Ishmael, his brother, and some friends are heading down to the village Mattru Jong for a talent show. They plan on performing some rap songs and dance that they learned, but when they arrive at Mattru Jong they discover that rebel soldiers, part of RUF, have attacked their home village and are now heading in their direction. The boys flee into the forest, and as they run they encounter horrid scenes of brutality and violence. The boys camp out in other villages together as they travel, but every time they are eventually run out by the rebels.
In one of these instances, Ishmael runs into a bush without time to look for his friends or his brother, whom he will never see again. Ishmael is now alone, and wanders the forest for about a month, searching for food and evading wild animals. Eventually, Ishmael encounters some boys he recognizes from his school. They’re heading to the village Yele, which is said to be safe, and Ishmael joins them. During their travel, one night seems particularly distressing to the boys. Three strange travelers cross the boys’ path, forcing them to hide.
One of the boys, Saidu, faints, and the boys carry him into the next village for help. There, Ishmael hears that his family is in a nearby village and is safe, and the boys plan on traveling there next. The boys become burdened with sadness however, after Saidu’s strange and eerie death, as if his previous words had come true. “Every time people come at us with the intention of killing us, I close my eyes and wait for death . . . Very soon I will completely die and all that will be left is my empty body walking with you. ” The boys sadly bury their friend, but are optimistic about the future and seeing their parents.
They meet a man who informs them that their parents are just over a hill, but when they reach the top they see nothing but fire raging throughout the village. Gunshots and screams permeate the air. The rebels had gotten to the village first. Devastated, Ishmael runs through the village, plagued by the sight of the bloody soil and burnt, bullet-riddled bodies. The man points to the house Ishmael’s parents lived in, but it has been nearly reduced to ash. There wasn’t a chance that his family survived. This was the point where the war really starts to change Ishmael.
The boys finally arrive in Yele, where the government troops are headquartered. Here is where the brain-washing begins. Lieutenant Jabati tells the boys, ranging in age from seven to seventeen, (Ishmael is now thirteen) that “This is your time to revenge the death of your families and to make sure more children do not lose their families. ” They begin training, and shortly after are shoved into their first battle. For the next two years, Ishmael and the survivors will spend their time fighting and taking part in gruesome slayings, watching war movies, and sniffing cocaine and brown brown, gunpowder mix with cocaine.
One day, four civilians arrive in a UNICEF truck. Lieutenant Jabati orders Ishmael and a few other boys to go with the workers. They do as they’re told, but are confused and angered. They are taken to a rehabilitation center in Freetown, and are brought into the dining room, where they encounter other boys who have been rescued. However, these boys are rebel soldiers. The UNICEF workers naively thought that just by removing the boys from the violence everything would be okay. The boys cannot behave in a peaceful manner though, and a battle erupts.
Ishmael throws a hand grenade he smuggled in, and soon enough six boys have died. Ishmael and other boys are relocated to a different center and suffer withdrawal from the drugs. One nurse takes particular interest in Ishmael and helping him recover, and he begins to make great progress. The staff finds his uncle, and after a few more months they allow Ishmael to live with his uncle’s family. He is nominated to go to New York with Children Associated with War to speak about his experience and to help raise awareness. Living with his uncle, his future looks bright. But on May 26, 1997, the city is under attack.
Johnny Paul Koroma, leader of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), has taken over presidency, and chaos erupts in the city. Ishmael soon realizes he cannot stay in the city or he will be recruited as a soldier again. He has already come across previously rehabilitated friends who have been brainwashed again. Ishmael plans to flee Siera Leone and live in New York, but he must make it to Guinea in order to get to the United States. After a long a dangerous bus ride and many close calls with soldiers, Ishmael finally arrives in Guinea. He is finally free. Main Theme
The main theme for this book is war is hell, and it drastically changes people’s lives for the worse, whether they’ve fought in it or just witnessed it. Ishmael was put through horrible and chilling circumstances, and witnessed atrocities no one should have to see, especially a young teenage boy. His innocence was stripped from him at a young age and was replaced by the monster that is war. His childhood memories will forever be plagued by the war he suffered through. Geography of the Region Location: Western Africa, bordering the North Atlantic Ocean between Guinea and Liberia. Climate: tropical, hot and humid.
The summer rainy season is from May to December, and the winter dry season is from December to April. Terrain: coastal belt of mangrove swamps, wooded hill country, upland plateau, mountains in east. Reaction This book was very moving to me. Having to read about the horrors and atrocities Ishmael not only witnessed, but had to take part in, left a huge impact on me. My knowledge about Sierra Leone and the war and the child soldiers was very slight, so this book really opened my eyes. It made a huge difference to actually read about the war from someone who took part in it rather than just hearing it from a spokesperson.
Many times while reading the book I had to set it down in the middle of a paragraph or even a sentence because some of the stories were just too gruesome or too sad. When Saidu died, for example, I was nearly in tears because of the reality of it, and also the eeriness of it. Some of the war stories were almost too much for me to take, and I became infuriated with how these people had brainwashed such young children and stolen their innocence from them. This book was truly heart wrenching, but when Ishmael was finally free from the horrors of the war, it restored hope in my heart.