Book excerpt: "Little Family" by Ishmael Beah

The African writer Ishmael Beah, author of the #1 New York Times-bestselling memoir "A Long Way Gone," offers a novel of young people struggling to survive on the outskirts of society.

Read an excerpt below from "Little Family":


Kpindi brushed his hands against the low‑hanging branches of the tree under which he sat, the morning dew on the leaves moistening his palms. Shivering, he wiped his face, youthful but coarsening, with his wet hands. This attempt to wake eyes that yearned to slumber was not successful. He sat back on his heels and crouch‑walked to a shorter tree surrounded by tall grasses, at the junction of the dusty red paths. From this point, he could hear and see from afar anyone who approached, with plenty of time to decide how to react. Satisfied with his line of sight, he stretched his bony frame, his rib cage drawing away from his long belly, and sat erect, with an unreadable stare calculated to inspire fear, curiosity, and confusion in anyone who happened upon him. Such an encounter had never occurred, and Kpindi liked it that way. He didn't want to be found. Not by those who were searching for something, in pain or confusion or fear. But even less by the kind of people who bore well‑meaning smiles, yet whose eyes betrayed a disregard so habitual that they were no longer conscious of it.

Determined to stay alert, Kpindi concentrated on each of his senses in turn, so that every little whiff of smoke from newly kindled fires where breakfast plantains were frying, every fluttering of a bird in the branches, every whisk of a broom sweeping dried leaves from someone's yard, every bucket that clanked in the grasp of those going to fetch water, pulled him from the grip of slumber.

And then there were footsteps—footsteps that Kpindi did not recognize. He quieted his breathing until it fell beneath the passing breeze.

"She brought me right here every morning, even when she could barely walk." As soon as the next gust of wind shook the grasses, Kpindi hastened to a new hiding place. From this position, he could see the elder whose voice had reached him. She was sitting on a large flat stone, a young woman by her side. Her face, elegantly wrinkled, was lit with memory.

Lost as these two were, in either the joys or the bitterness of the past, Kpindi knew they were no threat. Absently, he pulled a kola nut from the front pocket of his trousers and took a bite, to keep himself awake and steady. The smell of the nut, and the familiar ritual of chewing it, brought his grandmother to mind—his grandmother with her constant joking, no matter how unhappy life had been back then. It was sweet to remember her face. He took another bite of the kola nut, keeping his eyes on the two women.

"Ah, never mind how you came into this world," his grandmother used to say. "You were brought here to live. So live!" And that was all he could ever get out of her.

Author Ishmael Beah. Priscillia Kounkou Hoveyda

The wind had dropped, and in the quiet, every sound was amplified. It seemed to Kpindi that his ears were vibrating. From his spot under the bushes, he imagined a context for each noise that reached his ears, a favorite pastime. Sometimes he would spend three or four hours on watch this way. Just then he heard a shriek, followed by a burst of laughter. He imagined the sounds as coming from a house nearby, where a father was getting ready for the day. His wife and five children had showered first, using up all the hot water, so that when it was his turn in the bathroom, cold water struck his body, and he shrieked. "Why must I suffer like this every morning?" he cried, as he did every morning. And the whole family, their faces smooth with Vaseline, the children in their school uniforms and their mother stylishly dressed to go run her waterfront store, joked and chatted as they did every morning too.

Was this a family he remembered, or a family he only imagined? Kpindi wasn't sure. He waited for the next sound to reach him, ready to dream up a fresh scenario.

The elderly woman stood up with surprising agility and began walking back toward town. The young woman looked around, but her gaze passed over Kpindi and went to the sky, and then she followed her companion. No need to warn the others, he decided.

Noises from the market were filling the air. The day had begun. As he rose to embrace the morning, the wind slapped a few leaves against Kpindi's face. Just then he heard the secret whistle. King's property, king's property, everything is correct.

He answered in turn. King's property, king's property, everything is correct.

From "Little Family" by Ishmael Beah, published on April 28, 2020 by Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 Ishmael Beah.

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