By LeRoy Lawson
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
New York: Macmillan, 2007
The Things They Carried
New York: Mariner Books, 1990
The Right Stuff
New York: Farrar, Strauss and Gireaux (Picador), 1979
The Hunger Games
New York: Scholastic Press, 2009
A few months ago Amazon.com published a list of “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime.” The list is designed to humble. At least it humbled me. So many books I haven’t read. I made my own “to-get-to” list from that list. It’s too long. It’ll take a lifetime to complete all 100. But I’ve begun.
I started with Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone. The author, now an adult living in America, was a 12-year-old in Sierra Leone when that country’s vicious civil war trapped him. Rebels burned his village. In running for his life he became separated from his family. He had to team up with other orphaned boys; together they began their long struggle for survival: hiding, stealing, starving, fleeing. He was caught, forced to become a soldier. He learned to shoot and pillage and kill, eventually with glee, before he was rescued and rehabilitated. He became human again.
Beah’s simple storytelling style is direct, unembellished, the truth as told by a child. You suffer with him. You want to protect him, hoping someone will come to his rescue. No one, certainly not a child, should suffer like this. You can understand why he eventually joins the government army. He must fight with them or die. So he fights, drugged with marijuana and cocaine and emboldened by his AK-47.
So much violence, so much heartache. Watching innocent boys turn into vicious killers is not entertaining. But I kept turning the pages—and grieving for a world that accepts such violence as normal.
The good news is that Ishmael did survive, was adopted by an American aid worker, and since finishing high school and college has devoted himself to the cause of preventing other children from suffering as he suffered.
What He Saw When He Didn’t Want to Go
Ishmael Beah’s is a tale told by a boy. O’Brien’s is told by a young soldier in the Vietnam War. This memoir-novel-meditation (it defies easy categorizing) jars every bit as much as Beah’s memoir. I kept thinking of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous quip, “War is hell.” The Things They Carried is not for the faint of heart or the easily offended (TV would censor much of the language).
It’s war painted on a small canvas, focusing on just a few combatants. You won’t admire all these men; in fact, you won’t admire everything about any of them. They are flesh and blood, enmeshed in a war they don’t understand and mostly don’t want, trying to make sense of the senseless, forever altered by their experience.
The Things They Carried has become a modern classic, studied in classrooms all over America. What did they carry? All their gear, of course, and personal items that tell something of their story. They carried good luck charms and pictures from home. That’s not all. “They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice . . . Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to.”
I’ve read more war stories than I’ve wanted to. This one, though, I rank among my favorites, reminiscent in a way of Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, which used to be a staple in high school English classes.
O’Brien went to Vietnam. He did not want to go; like so many of his generation, he felt there was no justification for this conflict. He says he served because he was a coward. He couldn’t stand the criticism if he hadn’t gone. So he went. He saw war at its worst—and saw through it. This work of fact/fiction is what he saw.
What They Accomplished When They Didn’t Need to Fly
Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff became a blockbuster movie back in 1983, and in 2013 the Library of Congress selected it to be preserved in the National Film Registry as one of filmdom’s most significant.
All I knew in 1983 was that it was a good film based on a good book. I had never read the book until the Amazon list came out. Reading the adventures of the seven original astronauts, as Wolfe recounts them, is, for any of us who were old enough to pay attention back then, an exercise in revisionist nostalgia. The astronauts were our heroes, those daring young men on their flying rockets, bursting through the earth’s atmosphere, circling the globe in claustrophobic capsules, not really piloting the craft (that was mostly done by remote control—remember Houston?) so much as withstanding the g-forces, the heat, the not knowing.
That they were mostly human guinea pigs didn’t matter. We needed heroes in the ’60s, and they filled the bill. The media presented them as almost superhuman; they were brilliant, highly skilled, patriotic, articulate, and exemplary family men whose gorgeous wives and perfect children set the standard for all America.
Except that this picture was mostly not true. They were a diverse lot, some highly skilled pilots and others barely qualified. They differed among themselves on almost all subjects. While John Glenn and his devoted Annie were in fact the “perfect couple,” several of the marriages were barely hanging on. Most of the men (not Glenn) were hard-drinking, hard-driving thrill seekers. They were not role models.
But together they became what the media and the hungry public wanted them to be. We now know—and the insiders knew then—that Project Mercury served almost no scientific or military ends. Computers and chimpanzees could teach as much as manned spaceflights did.
But America needed heroes and Russia needed defeating. So the men with the “right stuff” displayed it on cue, to the applause of an adoring nation.
What I Discovered from What I Didn’t Want to Read
Applause dominates in The Hunger Games, also, but it’s of a more sinister kind. I would never have read this book if my students hadn’t so insisted on its importance to their generation. The three Hunger Game books have taken young people by storm, they say, much as Harry Potter did. Again at their urging I saw the movie. Didn’t like it. Then, because they insisted, I read this book. Didn’t like it, either.
But I kept reading, because it isn’t the book I dislike so much as the premise. Sometime in the future the whole country has been divided into 12 districts; the federal government is evil and omnipotent. Order is maintained by the annual hunger games. Each district randomly chooses two teenagers. Then all 24 chosen ones are prepped and turned loose in the wild—to kill each other. The teenager still standing when all the rest are dead is the winner. To the winner go all the spoils.
It took me awhile, but then I realized The Hunger Games is parable of life on this planet, where wars are games and governments train and arm young men and women to go out and kill each other in the name of patriotism, for the sake of the powerful.
Two more volumes in the trilogy. I’m not certain I’m up to it.
LeRoy Lawson serves as international consultant with CMF International and professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary. He also serves as a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.