War Child


Note:  This is an autobiography, not a work of fiction.  It’s not the kind of thing I normally review for this site, but it’s such a powerful illustration of the violence and brutality experienced by child soldiers that I decided to make an exception.

Author: Emmanuel Jal

Publication: 2010, St. Martins

Pages: 272

Overall Rating:

Rating for Action: N/A

Quantity of Action: N/A

Age Category: 13+

Brief Summary: Emmanuel Jal is an African rap star and peace activist.  The book tells the story of his life growing up in war torn Southern Sudan.  As a young boy his village was overrun, his family scattered, and he was sent on a harrowing trek to a refugee camp in Ethiopia.  From there he was recruited by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, trained to become a child soldier, and sent forth to fight the Northern Sudanese soldiers who destroyed his country.

Age of Main Character: 7-20+

What I Liked the Most: What really makes this book stand out is Jal’s raw honesty and emotion.  As a child he saw and did many things that will likely haunt him for the rest of his life, but he doesn’t flinch from sharing them here.  If you have ever wondered what life in a war torn, poverty stricken African village might be like, if you’ve ever found yourself trying to imagine what it could possibly mean to go to war as a young child, or to find yourself living as a refugee in a strange country, then this is a book you need to read.  The clear descriptions of African life from someone who grew up there, the brutally direct narrative of war, violence, and hate, the sense of wonder and confusion when he’s finally brought from the war zone to live in Kenya – it all leaps off the page in clean, unflinching prose.

What I Liked the Least: This might be something of a spoiler, but I did not realize going into the book that Jal was a Christian rapper.  In the latter third of the book he undergoes something of a spiritual rebirth, becoming a devout Christian, a gospel singer, and ultimately a Christian rap artist.  While I never felt that Jal was preaching at me, I was a little surprised by the turn the story took and I would have preferred to know up front that the book was written from an Evangelical Christian perspective.  Depending on your own personal religious beliefs that could either be a turn-off, or it could make the book more accessible.  Either way, I didn’t go into it expecting a religious rebirth or rap lyrics about Jesus, and I wish that aspect of the story had been made clear up front. 

How Good was the Action? I’m not going to really address that.  Yes, there are vivid battle scenes.  But unlike battle scenes that take place in a work of fiction, these really happened.  And the fear, hatred, and violence that Jal describes are raw and brutal in their intensity.

How Engaging was the Story? The story unquestionably drew me in.  After all, Jal spends most of it fighting for survival, learning to be a soldier despite being barely big enough to hold a gun, and delving into the traumatic realities of battle, starvation, and loss.  The fact that it’s all real – that everything he describes actually happened to him – simply makes it more impossible to put down.  

Overall Assessment: A phenomenal story of a young child tossed into the cauldron of war, violence, and revenge, and his slow journey back to peace and redemption.  It’s a powerful read on any level.

Profanity: Some.

Sex: There is a scene of rape in the book.  Not overly graphic, but definitely there.

Violence: Absolutely.  This is a story about war and people die in some very horrific ways, some of them at Jal’s hand.  He is caught in violent battles, and takes part in several brutal executions.  People are shot and hacked to pieces right in front of him and many more die of starvation and disease.  It’s a horrific war, one that scarred him for life, and he does not try to paper over the violence.

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