From Soldiers to Children: Undoing the Rite of Passage in Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone and Bernard Ashley's Little Soldier

By Kyulanova, Irina | Studies in the Novel, Spring-Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

From Soldiers to Children: Undoing the Rite of Passage in Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone and Bernard Ashley's Little Soldier


Kyulanova, Irina, Studies in the Novel


Introduction: The Gap between Ordered Worlds

That wars around the world not only affect but involve children as active participants is a well-known and at times a conveniently ignored fact. It is true that in recent years there has been growing attention towards the use of children to supply manpower in current war conflicts. International organizations such as UNICEF, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch have been engaged in rescuing and rehabilitating child soldiers. However, publicity on the topic has been limited, and it is only now that it has started to gradually find representation in different art forms, such as rap music, films, photography, and literature.

Child soldiering is referred to in different ways--in rap songs such as "Diamonds from Sierra Leone" by Kanye West and "Warchild" by Emmanuel Jal, himself a former child soldier; in films such as the Hollywood production Blood Diamond (2006) and the first segment in the international co-production, All the Invisible Children (2005); and in works in the collection of photojournalist Michael Kamber (one of whose photos was used for the cover of Ishmael Beah's memoir). Among the various intercultural responses to child soldiering, two literary works will be discussed here: Beah's memoir A Long Way Gone (2007) and Bernard Ashley's novel for young adults Little Soldier (1999).

Both A Long Way Gone and Little Soldier represent and test a common social assumption: that war can serve as a rite of passage to maturity and can accelerate the transition from childhood to adulthood. Both texts reflect the existing link between war and coming of age in public consciousness. At the same time, the two books question the grounds of such an association and the efficiency of war as an experience teaching life knowledge and skills.

The involvement in war of the two protagonists--Ishmael as a narrator in A Long Way Gone and the main character Kaninda in Little Soldier--contains the main structural and symbolic elements of Victor Turner's anthropological theory of the rite of passage into maturity. However, the meaning and function of these elements are ironically subverted to construct war as a deviant rite of passage, which yanks the protagonists out of their childhood status yet fails to grant them the new status of mature adults and integrate them into a stable social structure. The resocialization of the child soldiers in the two texts can be read as an attempt to reverse the distorted maturation process via a corresponding rite of passage back into childhood. The present paper will discuss how the two books challenge the effectiveness of such a reverse rite through the perspective of Turner's theory.

Victor Turner developed his theory on the rite of passage in a number of works over the second half of the twentieth century, using as a conceptual basis the work of an earlier anthropologist--Arnold van Gennep. Turner adopts from van Gennep the three-stage structure of the rite of passage: separation of the initiates from the community and from their previous social status; transition, when the transformation takes place and the initiates are redefined as members with a new social rank; and reintegration, which symbolically restores the initiates into society with their newly acquired status. The phases of separation and incorporation serve as boundaries that enclose ritual time-space, differentiating it from the profane sphere but also ensuring the safe transition from the sacred to the profane and vice versa. The middle stage, which is called "margin" or "limen," is the stage of ambiguity, where previous social classifications do not apply any longer and new ones have not been adopted yet. As Turner explains:

In liminality, profane social relations may be discontinued, former rights and obligations are suspended, the social order may seem to have been turned upside down, but by way of compensation cosmological systems (as objects of serious study) may become of central importance for the novices, who are confronted by the elders, in rite, myth, song, instruction in a secret language. …

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