This is a must-read book for a high school student. It doesn’t hold back in any of the details and is a first-hand account of one boy soldier’s experience in the civil war in Sierra Leone. There are many themes that can be discovered but the major one is a response to change. Towards the end, after he speaks at the United Nations, Ishmael says, “I was sad to leave, but I was also pleased to have met people outside of Sierra Leone. Because if I was to get killed upon my return, I knew that a memory of my existence was alive somewhere in the world.” Ishmael ultimately changes for the better.
Ishmael is like any ordinary youth and the way he escapes the horrors of war is seen through his love for Shakespeare and the recitation of several of his monologues from Macbeth and Julius Caesar, his love of rap music and acts such as Bob Marley, Run D.M.C, LL Cool J and Naughty By Nature. The scene with him dancing to one such song actually saves him and his friends’ lives at one dramatic point when he is captured. The friendship with Esther, the nurse who gives him a Walkman is sweet. The friendship builds slowly and he doesn’t ever tell her he loves her until after he sees her for the last time. He also goes on dates with girls but they don’t materialize because he finds it hard to open up about his life. The scene with Ishmael finally escaping Sierra Leone for the last time is tense and gripping and reads like an action thriller. Adolescent readers will find this to be a great example of a page-turning scene that resembles a movie. A wonderful line is, “I had to leave because I was afraid that if I stayed in Freetown any longer, I was going to end up being a soldier again or my former army friends would kill me if I refused.”
There is only one curse word but it comes from a rebel. The violence described in the book is harsh but it has to be told to effective describe to the reader everything that he went through. The book would not be the same if he did not into great detail on the things he saw and experienced himself. Examples of violence include a man’s genitals being sliced off, a family’s daughter’s being raped and man being completely cut open. Overall, the violence is not sugarcoated but the details are necessary to be a completely raw and honest portrayal of a boy soldier. The change the author goes through at the end is extraordinary given what he had to two as a soldier. There is mention of sons being forced to have sexual intercourse with their mothers by rebels. Other than that, there is no sexuality in the book.
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