We can learn a lot about Ishmael Beah’s state of mind in A Long Way Gone through his continuous thoughts about the moon. In this reoccurring image, we find allusions to Ishmael’s innocence, his desire for security, a connection with his past, and the inner good that helps bring him back to a place of healing.
We first are introduced to the moon motif at the end of chapter one, after we meet Ishmael, his brother Junior, and his friends. Ishmael learns that rebels have attacked the villages of his mother and of his father. Everything is in chaos, and the boys don’t know if their families are alive or dead. At this point in the narrative they are children wandering alone, looking for their families and for some very basic needs such as food and a safe place to sleep at night. As Ishmael takes shelter in an abandoned house, he remembers something he heard when he was six years old:
“’We must strive to be like the moon.’ An old man in Kabati repeated this sentence often to people who walked past his house on their way to fetch water.”
To understand the meaning of this adage, Ishmael asks his grandmother, another elderly person, what it means. She says,
“The adage served to remind people to always be on their best behavior.” She further explains that people often complain when the sun is too hot or it rains too much, but “no one grumbles when the moon shines. Everyone becomes happy and appreciates the moon in their own special way. Children watch their shadows and play in its light, people gather in the square to tell stories and dance through the night. A lot of happy things happen when the moon shines. These are some of the reasons we should want to be like the moon.”
We take our cue from this quote about a moon that Ishmael associates with home, family, and happiness. The moon is connected with Ishmael’s childhood during a time when he was secure and his world peaceful and stable.
Ishmael Beah ends his first rumination about the moon by bringing us back to the present:
“Whenever I get a chance to observe the moon now, I still see those same images I saw when I was six, and it pleases me that that part of childhood is embedded in me.”
Ishmael takes a journey through hell in this book. Although his childhood was stolen away from him, this quote lets us know that A Long Way Gone will be a redemption story, and all the horrific experiences that we are about to read will not erase the good and the imaginative in Ishmael. Yes, the good essence of Ishmael will survive.
“…the moon wasn’t in the sky…”
Ishmael makes this observation while the boys wait in the village of Mattru Jong for word of their families and hear rumors that the rebels are near. A victim emerges from the woods, hideously disfigured as a warning: the rebels have carved “RUF” into his body with a hot bayonet and cut off his fingers—all but his thumbs. This shocking sight confirms the horrible rumors Ishmael has heard: the rebels are demonically cruel. They are out there. They are close. They are coming—and “the moon wasn’t in the sky.”
“One night when I sat outside in a village square thinking about how far I’d come and what might lie ahead, I looked in the sky and saw how the thick clouds kept trying to cover the moon, yet it would reappear again and again to shine all night long. In some ways my journey was like the moon—although I had even more thick clouds coming my way to make my spirit dull.”
This quote appears later on in the book. Although Ishmael uses the moon as a metaphor for his journey, at this point we don’t know what the outcome will be, but by the end of the story, we realize that it was a journey from innocence and security through a forest of terror (separation from family and community and the dehumanization of war) to a place of healing where he is reintroduced to community and a new family.
There are other allusions to the moon in A Long Way Gone. Perhaps you’ve noticed them, too. Whether during small moments of respite or some of the darkest hours, the fact that the moon returns again and again brings hope to Ishmael and to us, his readers.
Diane Jones, Masters Student, Hood Graduate Program in the Humanitities