( dpa ) - The 600,000 people who made African orphan Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone a runaway bestseller deserve to know whether it really is the true story of a child soldier, The Australian newspaper said Saturday.
Meticulous research suggests the teenage survivor of Sierra Leone's civil war is mistaken not about what happened but when it happened.
The paper says he was likely to have been 15 and not 13 when he was recruited into the army and that he was at the front for months rather than years.
The researchers claim the rebel attack that opens a book that last year made The New York Times bestseller list took place on January 25, 1995, rather than in mid-January 1993.
It was that fateful guerrilla raid on his home village of Mogbwemo that cost Beah his family and turned him into a teenage killing machine.
If the researchers are right, the timeframe for Beah's narrative is squeezed into the 12-month period from the January 1995 attack to January 1996, when he was rescued and taken out of the armed struggle by international humanitarian organization UNICEF.
"The Ismael Beah saga is a puzzling tale complicated by what seems to be unquestioning and passionate belief in the young author from his publishers, guardian and agent," the paper said.
Beah's tale is both shocking and believable. An excerpt: "He picked Kanei, three other boys, and me for the killing exhibition. The five men were lined up in front of us on the training ground with their hands tied. We were supposed to slice their throats on the corporal's command. The person whose prisoner died quickest would win the contest."
Australian newspapers have a history of poring over books to get the facts right. Three years ago The Sydney Morning Herald forced an admission from Norma Khouri, the Jordanian-born American author of Forbidden Love, that her bestselling tale of a Moslem honour killing was an invention rather than a faithful first-person account of a murder in the Middle East.
"I apologize to all the readers, publishers and agents out there for not telling them my personal, full story," Khouri eventually admitted.
With readers still smarting over being taken in by Khouri, who was living in Australia on a refugee visa when she her duplicity was exposed, there are likely to be tough questions for Beah and for those who helped propel his book on to Time magazine's list of the top-10 non-fiction titles of 2007.
Khouri was caught out by the detective work of literary editor Malcolm Knox, who said of Khouri that "she's incredibly charming, incredibly persuasive and you do find yourself drawn in."
The alleged inconsistencies in the chronology of A Long Way Gone were noted by amateur sleuth Bob Lloyd, a Perth mining engineer, who went to The Australian with them.
Lloyd went to Sierra Leone in July to manage a titanium mine where Beah's father used to work with a copy of A Long Way Gone in his suitcase.
Mogbwemo villagers told Lloyd they were sure Beah attended the local secondary school in 1993 and 1994 - years when the book has him serving as a boy-soldier.
The principal of the school said Beah's account of the crucial rebel attack was entirely accurate - except that it took place in January 1995 rather than January 1993.
Lloyd approached the paper after Farrar, Straus and Giroux was unmoved by a note about the apparent inconsistencies in the book they had published. Australian distributor and Beah's New York agent Ira Silverberg were similarly dismissive.
Laura Simms, a professional storyteller and Beah's guardian in the US, alone came to his defence.
Simms told the paper: "If you were a kid in a war, would you have a calendar with you after you had lost everything and you were running through the bush. This young man has literally changed the world and how human beings look at children in war."