Two articles published in The Australian over the weekend have raised provocative questions about Ishmael Beah‘s A Long Way Gone, the bestselling memoir of his ordeal as a child soldier in Sierra Leone’s civil war. According to the articles, the memoir’s chronology is off by two years. All of this came to light when Bob Lloyd read the book as he was heading to manage the mine near the town where Beah grew up until it was attacked by rebels, forcing him into hiding until he was captured and then pressed into service:
“Beah’s book has it as January, 1993, but the [mine] workers claim—and news archives and logs indicate—that date is out by two years. The rebel forces arrived at the mine and surrounding villages not in mid-January, 1993 but on January 20, 1995, after attacking a nearby bauxite mine the day before.”
Beah’s boarding school master confirms that he was at school in 1993, and that the attack took place two years later. Laura Simms, the American activist who adopted Beah and brought him to New York, has responded to the discrepancies by asking the reporters, “If you were a kid in a war, would you have a calendar with you after you had lost everything and were running through the bush?” (That still leaves the somewhat unsettling implication that, if the dates are correct Beah couldn’t have been in forced combat for years, as the book has it, but months, given the firm dates for when UNICEF found him and helped him on the road to recovery.)
This is, obviously, very precarious territory, given the pressures that the scandal over James Frey‘s faulty chronologies and exaggerations have placed on all the memoirists who came after him. (When the issue of accuracy was raised in its broadest terms last year, Beah’s editor, Sarah Crichton, told the Los Angeles Times “Beah assured her that he has a ‘photographic memory’… [and] had grown up in a culture with a long-standing oral tradition and had learned to tell stories from memory around a fire.”) At the same time, it’s pretty clear that whatever the literal historical truth is, Beah went through a unique level of hell that many will be loath to diminish, even as the questions about his account of it undoubtedly continue in the days and weeks to come.