This astonishing debut by a gifted 23-year-old American of Nigerian ancestry tracks an African child soldier’s descent into hell.
Resilient but terrified, Little Agu is a wide-eyed, preteen boy thrown among the demented and the depraved. At the start, in an unspecified West African country, he’s being dragged out of a shack in the bush and beaten by another child. There are trucks, and soldiers in rags. They offer Agu food and water and the chance to be a soldier. Agu accepts (as if he had a choice). He has lost his loving, close-knit family. His mother and sister were evacuated by the UN, and his schoolteacher father was shot before his eyes. Agu inherited their Christian and animist beliefs; the smartest kid in his one-room school, he loved to read the Bible. Now he must kill. It’s not so hard if you’re high on “gun juice.” Explains Agu: “They are all saying, stop worrying. Stop worrying. Soon it will be your own turn and then you will know what it is feeling like to be killing somebody. Then they are laughing at me and spitting on the ground near my feets.” Agu comes across a mother and daughter and butchers them with his knife. He wants to be a good soldier, yet he is fearful of being a “bad boy”—and there is no way to resolve the contradiction. Agu is always tired, always hungry, and his ordeal stretches into the night when he is used as a sex toy and sodomized. There are no pitched battles, just these ragtag rebels killing and plundering. Iweala writes with great restraint, mindful that the most important battle is for a boy’s soul: Redemption is possible, even if a return to innocence is not.
The outrageous conscription of children has its own heartbreaking lament.