The memoir opens with a short prologue. Ishmael Beah is in high school in New York City in 1998. When his classmates become curious about his time in Sierra Leone, he answers as curtly as possible. He doesn’t tell them anything about why he fled home except that there was a civil war. He keeps his time as a child soldier a secret.
By opening with this short passage, Beah is framing what follows as the part of his life he has been reluctant to talk about. That Beah goes on to tell us about his most private traumas shows that he believes he should bear witness and tell not only his classmates, but the world, what his life has been like.
Beah then begins his story. It is 1993, he is twelve, and is leaving his hometown, Mogbwemo, in south-east Sierra Leone, for the day. He is going with his brother Junior and friend Talloi to Mattru Jong, a town sixteen miles to the east, to dance in a talent show. His best friend Mohamed can’t make it. Figuring that they will only be gone a day, they don’t tell anyone where they are going. Although a violent, bloody revolution is being waged in Sierra Leone between the government and rebels, Beah and his village have yet to be touched by it. Their only knowledge of it comes from refugees who pass through their town. Usually the refugees decline to talk about their experience with war, but when they do, Beah thinks their tales seem exaggerated.
Beah’s story of his childhood opens with innocence. His early life is not untroubled, but he has the freedom to pick up and go where he wants, and the time and energy for hobbies. Even though evidence of the horror of war passes through his town all the time, Beah isn’t worried by it. He leaves town and trusts that no one will worry about his absence and it does not even enter his mind that war might reach his town in his absence.
The boys decide to walk the sixteen miles to Mattru Jong to save the cost of travel, playing as they make the trek. After ten miles, they stop at Beah’s grandmother’s house in the village of Kabati. She wonders what the boys could possibly being doing in Mattru Jong if it doesn’t involve school. Her scolding is like that of Beah’s father, who has often wondered if the boys even understand what their favorite rappers are saying. A couple of hours later they arrive and meet their friends Gibrilla, Kaloko and Khalilou, who live in Mattru Jong.
A sixteen mile trek is no problem for the boys with each other’s company. Although their grandmother is troubled that the boys are not focused on their schooling, she does not seem concerned that they are out without supervision. Even the adults seem unaware of the possibility that war might reach them. The focus are the everyday tensions between boys and adults, between school and fun.
The next day Beah, Junior and Talloi, who are staying at their friend’s, are surprised when their friends return early from school. Gibrilla, who has joined the boys in a push-up competition without giving them the news first, explains that Mogbwemo has been attacked by the rebels and that everyone has fled. They learn that Mattru Jong is next on the rebel’s list.
That Gibrilla would continue to play before giving his friends what amounts to horrifying news speaks to the boys’ collective innocence. None of them yet seem to grasp the gravity of what has happened. Their families may have been wounded or killed.
Beah and his friends head to the wharf, where refugees are arriving from Mogbwemo by boat, wanting to see if they can find their families or get some information about what might have happened to them. They wait anxiously for three hours, but their families do not arrive, and no one has any news of them. Beah notes how strange it was to him that that the sun could shine and the birds would sing. He cannot believe the war has reached them.
Beah and his friends are helpless in the face of what has happened. To lose their parents would shatter their world, but the boys at first do not even consider this possibility out loud. The beauty of nature, at this time, doesn’t seem to match up to the horrible possibilities. Beah still thinks of nature as wholly good.
Beah then remembers with great pain the last time he saw his father. Beah was about to go to see his mother, whom Beah’s father was divorced from. Sitting on his porch, Beah was approached by his father, who was just coming home from work. His father smiled at him. Beah’s relationship with his father is rough, especially because his father has stopped paying for his schooling and has remarried. But before either of them can say anything, Beah’s stepmother comes out, and his father disappears into the house to speak with her. Beah then leaves to go see his mother, and she asks after her ex-husband, reminding Beah that he means well. Now, Beah imagines his father running home from work and his mother running to pick up his little brother during the attack.
Despite their rocky relationship, Beah loves his father and is deeply worried for his safety, as he is for his mother’s. Beah wishes, of course, that he could have talked to his mother and father, and has a sense that something terrible may have happened to them, but does not yet imagine fully that they might have been killed, which speaks to his innocence. Instead, he imagines their fear as they searched for their children and save themselves.
The boys decide to head for Mogbwemo, despite the terror that is evident on the faces of the refugees and their warnings. The boys make it as far as Kabati, Beah’s grandmother’s village, which has been deserted, but what they see there makes them reconsider. A car drives into town, and out of it spills a bloodied man who had tried to escape with his family. Beah is horrified to see that the man’s entire family is dead in the car. More refugees come through town, some of them carrying their dead children to the hospital as if they were still alive. Others are unaware that they are even wounded. Beah dreams that night for the first time of the war, and in the dream he is shot.
In their youth, the boys have yet to understand the danger they are putting themselves in. In going to find their parents, it is hard to imagine what it is that they think they might do to help them. The man in the car is their introduction to the horror of the war, and a clear sign of just how atrocious the rebels can and will be. Beah’s dream, too, shows that he is already traumatized by a war that he has only just become acquainted with.
Utterly stunned at the violence and unable to comprehend its purpose, the boys decide not to head for Mogbwemo, but instead to return to Mattru Jong. Back in Mattru Jong, the boys continue to head to the wharf for news for a week, but the stream of refugees slows to a trickle and finally stops altogether. Government troops arrive, and the boys comfort each other by agreeing that the war cannot last, spreading a rumor that the army has already gone to flush the rebels out of the mines, and listening to rap music.
Understanding the danger they had put themselves in by even going to Kabati, the boys return to a relative safety, even though they know Mattru Jong is next on the rebel’s list. Although what they have seen does not bode well for their parents, the boys, with each other’s help, hold out hope, even thinking that the war might stop right on their doorstep. Their youthful innocence gives them hope, and they hide behind that hope.
To distance himself from what he has seen, Beah remembers his grandmother’s directive to “be like the moon,” as the moon always makes people happy. Beah has always followed her advice, and as a boy, spends much of his time contemplating the moon and seeing images in its surface as one does with clouds. In the present in New York City, Beah is pleased to know that something of his younger self remains, since he can still look with the same the pleasure that he once did at the moon.