Boy Soldier of Fortune

A celebrated memoir threatens to blow into a million little pieces

These days, publishers are typically not expected to vet a manuscript in the same way that an article in, say, The New Yorker is fact-checked, one publishing executive said. The manuscript might be shown to people in the field or to lawyers to check for libel, but that's usually all that happens.

In some situations, the publisher might consider placing a disclaimer of some kind at the start of the book. "One thing that always strikes me about oral history is how ephemeral it can be—how two people on the same street corner at the same time will see an event totally differently," the executive added.

Janice Harayda, editor of the book website One Minute Book Reviews and a former book editor for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, said she was astonished that Beah's publisher had declined to place a notice of some kind in A Long Way Gone. Harayda has pursued a campaign to expose what she claims are questionable scenes in the book.

Columbia University professor Neil Boothby has examined enough child-soldier tales to question Beah’s.
Stacy Kranitz
Columbia University professor Neil Boothby has examined enough child-soldier tales to question Beah’s.

"When authors re-create scenes from memory, responsible publishers put a disclaimer in the book: 'Because these events happened long ago, I have changed names,' or whatever," she said. "[Beah] admits to not one change. At the very least, it shows poor editorial judgment."

Because of the power of Beah's story, most observers are loath to question it, thanks to the attention it has so successfully brought to the plight of the child soldier.

Neil Boothby, a highly regarded expert on children and war at Columbia University, holds that view, but he also said it's possible that Beah may have exaggerated his account at the prompting of aid workers and others—recognizing that the worse the story, the more assistance he would receive.

Boothby is the director of a Forced Migration and Health program at Columbia University. He has worked with child refugees in Indonesia following the 2004 tsunami, and in Rwanda, Croatia, Mozambique, and Cambodia. He was team leader of UNICEF's child-protection assessment unit in Darfur in 2005 and 2006. He has taken part in special initiatives for both the Clinton and Bush administrations, and he did a long-term study on child soldiers in Mozambique.

Boothby said the most sensational accounts tend to get the most attention. Orphans fleeing the Khmer Rouge who had the most horrific stories, for example, tended to be resettled much more quickly than other refugees.

"I think what [Beah] has done is meet with UNICEF, journalists, and others, and he told stories, and people responded to certain stories enthusiastically," Boothby said. "That has encouraged him to come out with an account that has sensationalism, a bit of bravado, and some inaccuracies. To me, the key question is whether there's enough accuracy to make the story credible."

While Beah has issued statements and his publisher and agent have defended the book, the author has yet to sit down for an extended interview about the questions that have been raised.

"My take on this from the beginning was: There was some kind of exaggeration," Boothby said. "I've seen it over and over. Whether by psychologists or journalists, they are encouraged to tell the sensational stories. It's not surprising that that could be the case here.

"The system is set up to reward sensational stories. We all need to look at why does something have to be so horrific before we open our eyes and ears and hearts?"

A red flag for Boothby is that Beah's account happens to include just about every possible trauma that can occur in the bleak life of a child soldier. It would be extraordinary for all of those horrible events to happen in the life of a single person.

"Without question, these things happen," he said. "But it's very unlikely that all of that bad stuff would happen to one kid. Any story [with that kind of] blank-slate horror has to be called into question."

Amani M'Bale, an official with the humanitarian organization CARE in Sierra Leone, told the Voice that the book does depict experiences common to child soldiers in Africa. But she added that she cannot speak to its credibility.

"There are thousands of young people who weren't as lucky as Ishmael," she said. "They remain here, their lives interrupted, simply without the means to secure a livelihood. Many are illiterate. It's important for us to do something to give these people hope."

For his part, Boothby said that he's pleased with the attention that the book has brought to this issue and has been hesitant to express his views for that reason.

"I've refrained from any sort of comment or criticism because I would hate to see something like this undermine the human-rights momentum," he said. "[Beah's] a very courageous, very eloquent spokesman."

Likewise, Wilson, the Australian reporter, believes that Beah "beefed up" his story to get to the United States and then got locked into it. "I believe he was a child soldier for about two months, and a refugee for about 10 months," Wilson said. "Just look at the pacing of the book: He takes 100 pages to describe the 10 months, 20 or 30 pages to describe the two years as a child soldier, and then reverts to the original pacing once he reaches the refugee camp."

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