THE WASHINGTON POST – Ishmael Beah’s 2007 memoir, A Long Way Gone, was hard to ignore and impossible to forget. News reports about children conscripted into Sierra Leone’s civil war had shocked the world, but then came this indelible testimony from one of the soldiers describing the horrors he had witnessed and committed as a teenager. Beah’s survival, his recovery and his eloquence made him an international symbol of hope, and he has worked passionately since then to bring attention and resources to saving children traumatised by wars.
Now almost 40-years-old, Beah has published his second deeply affecting novel, Little Family. Although set in an unnamed African nation, the story speaks to the plight of extremely poor people in all countries riddled with corruption and violence. Distressingly, the experiences of Beah’s characters are the experiences of the powerless everywhere.
Inspired by his extensive travels and interviews, Beah has imagined a group of five homeless orphans living together on the edge of a bustling city. As victims of abuse, they care for each other gently, warding off memories of better – and worse – times. “They had an unspoken understanding not to press one another about the past and its pain,” Beah wrote, “but to keep trying to live in the present, offering silent understanding and respect”.
Much is silent and unspoken in this subtle novel about people we rarely hear from. Beah’s narration rests lightly across these lives, suggesting only the outlines of their ruined childhoods. Even the brief opening of Little Family – a glancing vision of a boy fading into tall grass – suggests the nature of these wary transients. Given the necessity of remaining invisible, the five kids in Little Family have taken refuge in an abandoned airplane camouflaged by a maze of vegetation.
The oldest boy, a bookish 20-year-old named Elimane, acts as their de facto leader. But there are no formalised lines of command. Knit together by love rather than by blood or authority, they form a natural commune in which everything is shared equally.
Tender as this is, Beah has no interest in romanticising their little family. He means only to insist on their humanity, which the upper classes so aggressively deny. The novel conveys the precariousness of their position with shocking clarity: Every day is a struggle for these kids whom nobody wants.
Little Family is an empathy-expanding story without the heavy gears of polemical fiction. In a sense, Beah has written an African social novel that complements earlier novels by Dickens and Twain, but he conveys his unsettling assessment with a more delicate balance of tenderness and dread. Elimane, Khoudi and the other members of their little family have such a clear-eyed sense of their place as disposable members of society.