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A new life informed by the old

With a promotional jolt from Starbucks, a former child soldier is now a celebrity author.

February 27, 2007|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Ishmael Beah thought he'd seen enough miracles in one lifetime when U.N. officials helped him move at age 17 to America, far from the African civil war where he'd been a 13-year-old soldier. Settled with an adoptive mother in New York City, he did well in high school and graduated from Oberlin College. But his good fortune was only beginning: Not only did Beah find a publisher for his subsequent book about his childhood, "A Long Way Gone," but the memoir attracted enormous media attention, including an excerpt that became a New York Times Magazine cover story.

And now, with Starbucks' decision to promote and sell his book in more than 6,000 stores, the 26-year-old author has been thrust into the role of spokesman for child soldiers worldwide. He's become an overnight celebrity, with a 10-city book tour scheduled for the coffee chain. In a life filled with some truly shocking reversals, this new chapter may be just about the last thing he ever expected.

"This all hit me out of the blue," the modest, soft-spoken writer said recently, riding a cab to his first appearance on the tour, in a New York cafe. "I didn't even know Starbucks sold books. They chose mine, and it changed everything. I wasn't really prepared."

When the coffee chain announced its first book selection last year -- bestselling author Mitch Albom's novel, "For One More Day" -- the title sold more than 90,000 copies. But Albom's book was expected to do well. Beah, by contrast, was unknown. The selection has given him not only a rare opportunity to sell many copies of his book, but also a forum to talk about the Sierra Leone civil war, which few Americans understand.

So far, "A Long Way Gone" has sold more than 37,000 copies in the chain's stores, according to Starbucks.

It was a surreal scene on a wintry afternoon last week in Manhattan, as more than 150 people jammed into a room that normally holds 30 to 40 customers. When Beah approached a microphone to read several passages from his book, espresso makers were noisily steaming away in the back of the cafe. A few customers, oblivious, continued private conversations.

"I'm going to read a section about when I was trying to run away from the war," the author said, getting ready to read passages filled with graphic, stomach-turning violence. "And then, perhaps, you can all finish your food." The crowd laughed, but fell silent as Beah began.

Afterward he talked about family members who were slaughtered by rebel soldiers. He told the audience how lucky he had been to find refuge in a rehabilitation center, with the war still raging. He talked of the new life he found here with his adoptive mother, and the chance to study, to learn how to become a writer at Oberlin College.

Then hands shot up and questions began: In his book he wrote about his love for rap music, said one audience member, so would Beah perform a rap song? The author seemed embarrassed and politely declined. How come there are no strong public figures like Desmond Tutu or Nelson Mandela speaking out about the horrors of the Sierra Leone war, asked another? "I think you're looking at your Desmond Tutu," answered the moderator, pointing to Beah. He looked flustered as the crowd applauded.

A woman began speaking in a quavering voice, saying she had been a child in India during years of civil violence. She had suppressed memories of the time her grandmother had taught her how to make bombs to protect herself -- but Beah's book reminded her. The author tentatively went up to embrace the woman, who was weeping.

Starbucks has announced that it will donate $2 from each copy sold to the U.S. fund for UNICEF, with a minimum contribution of $100,000. Beah's book was chosen, officials said, because it told a story of "hope and redemption" and would help spur "community and conversation."

"I don't think the Starbucks experience will transform Ishmael, but it will change the context in which he's seen, as a spokesperson for issues most Americans don't know much about," said Ira Silverberg, Beah's agent. "He's been given a rare opportunity in the book world."

Indeed, the author, his agent and publisher are still in a daze over Beah's success. Sarah Crichton, who published the memoir under her imprint at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, said the company submitted the book to Starbucks when word spread the chain was looking for a new title.

"We were thrilled, but this is also a little nerve-racking," she said. "When you put someone like Ishmael in this kind of position, it's like pushing someone out on a ledge. We all know how the American publicity machine can take off suddenly, without any warning."

Crichton began editing Beah's book as scandal was engulfing James Frey, the bestselling author who later confessed that he had made up key facts in his memoir. The publisher asked Beah to vouch for the accuracy of his book, with its sharp recall of details and conversations.

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