Young Adult Fiction
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Byr)
June 13, 2017
"A searing, shocking book—part non-fiction, part novel—based on the true story of a child soldier in Uganda who survived war and enslavement and went on to create a haven for others who suffered a similar fate." Publisher
Soldier Boy details the plight of child soldiers, both boys and girls, in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) over a twenty-year period of the civil war in northern Uganda. The story is told from the perspectives of two child soldiers: Samuel, 11, whose story is a fictionalized account based on the actual experiences of former child soldiers in Uganda, according to the author’s note; and Ricky, 13, whose story is based on the life of Ricky Richard Anywar, who, along with his brother, was abducted by the LRA in 1989, and his remaining family members were burned to death. The two alternating accounts are given in the third-person, although the narrative focalizes the point of view of the two protagonists. The novel begins in 2006 with Samuel’s chapter, when the government forces are victorious against the LRA; and then moves to Ricky’s longer and more numerous chapters, beginning in 1987 when the civil war had just started and ending three years after his abduction in 1992.
Hutton adheres to the formulaic pattern of most memoirs of child soldiers published in the West by firmly rooting Ricky’s story in the protective environment of his nurturing and loving family and in his traditional village community, which transmits wisdom through storytelling and the guidance of elders in order to prepare youngsters to assume adult responsibilities (see Khorana). Ricky’s narrative is told with authenticity, providing a level of detail that only someone who has undergone the experience of being a child soldier can describe. None of the horror, brutality, or savagery of the treatment meted out to the young abductees by their rebel commanders is sugarcoated or minimized — savage beatings, shortage of food and clothing, diseases, untreated wounds, witnessing murders and torture, inhuman physical endurance, uncertainty of life. In fact, Ricky’s narrative is so gut-wrenching that it is a relief to read Samuel’s chapters. Samuel’s story spans a single day in 2006, after he was left wounded on the battlefield and rescued by the Friends of Orphans rehabilitation center. Through the traumatized mind of Samuel, readers get a glimpse into the inner world of a recently rescued child soldier, whose survival instincts tell him that his only weapons are being alert, trusting no one, and devising plans to escape. While the subject matter of Soldier Boy may sound familiar, its nonlinear plot structure and dual protagonists distinguish it from other novels belonging to this genre. The two stories are juxtaposed at significant moments in the plot until they merge in the final chapter, where we learn that the kindly man helping Samuel is actually Ricky, who has narrated his story at length to Samuel in order to enable him to share his experiences.
Juxtaposing the two stories has another artistic purpose: it not only enables the reader to witness the trauma former child soldiers undergo but also to understand how difficult and slow the process of rehabilitation really is. During the course of the day in Samuel’s segments, various creative and psychological strategies are employed to aid the healing process — such as artwork, song and poetry, playacting, confrontation with people from the past, playing games enjoyed as children, recreating the scenes and sounds of war, and meeting local villagers whom the child soldiers had wronged. Through these methods, a two-way reconciliation occurs: the former child soldiers learn to overcome “grief, anger, pain, and guilt” (322) and are encouraged to forgive themselves and their abductors in order to be purged of their pain; while the local villagers come to realize that child soldiers are traumatized souls rather than killers, that “they must look past the crimes [the child soldiers] were forced to commit and see them for who they truly are” — their children (238). The goal of Friends of Orphans, founded by Ricky Richard Anywar in 1999, is to empower these young victims of war through kindness, love, trust, self-esteem, and hope. Unlike most stories of former child soldiers, Ricky’s experience is exceptional because the rehabilitation of child soldiers is organized by Ugandans and not by an international agency, the psychological techniques employed are rooted in African traditions, and the girls and boys are reintegrated into their own culture and communities rather than in a foreign country. The concept of home, or obeno, is central to their reintegration. It is the driving force that motivates Ricky to endure his suffering and to do everything in his power to survive and return home. However, home is not necessarily their family or village community but a place where they can build the future with hope and joy.
Khorana, Meena G. “Deconstructing the Memoirs of African Child Soldiers Published in the West.” Sankofa: A Journal of African Children’s and Young Adult Literature 13 (2014): 106–20.
Reviewed by Meena Khorana, Ph.D. Emeritus, Morgan State University
Published in Africa Access Review (March 8, 2018)
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