Boy Soldier of Fortune

A celebrated memoir threatens to blow into a million little pieces

Wilson said that he also found a dozen people in the town who insist that the battle took place in 1995. "This wasn't a skirmish, this was a wholesale invasion—and the only time that happened in Mattru Jong was in 1995," he said. "For people from that town, it's like questioning a New Yorker on whether the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001."

On the questions surrounding the date of the rebel attack on the village, Beah told the Associated Press in late January: "I have tried to think deeply about this, and my memory gives me 1993 and nothing more. And that's what I stand by."

Beah and his publishers have also pointed to Mboka, the counselor at the Benin Home, as someone who can back up his account. But Mboka didn't meet Beah until 1996, some time after the battle in his village, and also after the alleged killings in the UNICEF-run refugee camp.

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.

Mboka told Wilson on January 21 that the book accurately recounts Beah's time at the Benin Home. Mboka added: "He was a young child who had been through terrible things, so he could easily have got things mixed up."

Beah's statement also quotes Alusine Kamara, a former director of the Benin Home, who said: "I have no doubt that what he says is true." But Kamara's statement doesn't directly address The Austalian's specific questions either.

Meanwhile, the people around Beah—his publisher, Sarah Crichton; his publicist, Jeff Seroy; and his agent, Ira Silverberg—have leaped to his defense, aggressively attacking the critics and accusing them of being on a "vendetta" against Beah. But Wilson is an award-winning reporter who was once named Australian journalist of the year and has served in Iraq. His colleagues on the story, Shelley Gare and David Nason, are also well respected in the field: Gare has won awards for editing an Australian literary review, and Nason has earned the coveted role of New York correspondent. The three of them have over 20 years of journalistic experience each .

Wilson said that he approached Beah following a speech in London and confronted him with the account of Joseph Benya, one of the three school officials who recall Beah attending school in 1993 and '94. Beah denied knowing him, even though Wilson said he'd not only spoken to the three school officials (the former principal, now a national minister; the former boarding master, now the principal; and a third official who is now the chairman of the district council); he'd also gotten confirmation from one of their nephews, who was in school with Beah at the time.

"None have any incentive to lie, and none have read the book—and yet they've been dismissed," Wilson said.

Indeed, when the Voice called Ira Silverberg, Beah's agent, he didn't even wait for a question before launching into a lengthy soliloquy on journalistic ethics.

"This is a story about the media and responsibility," Silverberg said. "You all need to look at yourselves—and if you want me to say that to your editors, then I will."

Silverberg then went on to accuse The Australian of unethical behavior, contending that people from Sierra Leone do support Beah's account.

Beah's supporters are quick to point out that The Australian is owned by Rupert Murdoch, as if that might explain why the paper has some kind of interest in smearing Beah. But actually, the events that led the paper to the story were innocent enough: A western Australian mining engineer found himself being transferred to Sierra Leone, to the mine where Beah's father had worked. His wife, a bookseller, gave him a copy of A Long Way Gone to read on the plane. Naturally, he became curious about the tale and asked the workers at the mine if they had known Beah's father. To his surprise, he was told the man was still working there. The engineer tried to get word to Beah and, having no luck, turned to The Australian. By then, he had also noted that Beah seemed to have gotten his dates wrong.

In the end, it turned out that the man at the mine wasn't Beah's father, and The Australian didn't write a story. But when reporters at the paper found their efforts to reach the author blocked, they began to get suspicious.

Silverberg pointed out that a memoir, especially about childhood, can hardly be 100 percent accurate, given the vagaries of memory and perception: "If you had a fire when you were 13 years old, and you write a piece 20 years later about it, who's going to expect you to get every detail accurate?" He might want to ask his client that question.

Jeff Seroy, a spokesman for Beah at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, closely questioned why the Voice was interested in the story. He repeated many of the points made by Silverberg and wouldn't add anything for the record, insisting that all of the salient issues have already been addressed.

"We have already responded to the questions raised by critics, i.e. Peter Wilson of the Australian, and have no more to add to the discussion," Seroy wrote in an e-mail last week.

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