Saturday, December 22, 2012

Vaddey Ratner's In the Shadow of the Banyan

On a glorious Saturday afternoon in southwest Florida, beginning a four day holiday, I sit in front of the computer trying to figure out how I can possibly explain the beauty of the novel I've just finished. Don is sanding away in the garage - the final stage in the bookcase building - before we stain. A pot of homemade soup loaded with our home-grown vegetables (thank you Michelle Obama for the inspiration) is simmering on the stove. How can I or any of my readers fully comprehend the deprivation that led Vaddey Ratner to finally pen her family's story?

In schools today we know that the Jewish Holocaust is taught at length. The library is overflowing with books on the subject and that's as it should be. But why not the other holocausts that have occurred over and over again throughout the world? Last week I wrote of the Armenian genocide. I've often written or referred to the African diaspora and slavery, probably the largest holocaust of all. Now, through her exquisite prose, the talent most likely inherited from her poet father, Vaddey Ratner introduces readers to the Cambodian genocide that happened only forty years ago,in which some two million people were starved, tortured and murdered by their fellow man.

In the Shadow of the Banyan is a novel of heartbreaking despair, tempered with exquisite language. Ms. Ratner manages to convey hope after every cruelty, using the metaphor of flight throughout,she ends her story as the U.N. helicopter lifts her from the border of Thailand, west to freedom. Ms. Ratner fully discloses that this is the actual story of her family but that she felt compelled to write it in fictional format, perhaps to distance herself from the pain. But her memory informs every sentence.

If you are old enough to remember the film, The Killing Fields, then you will understand what happened to the author's family. The Khmer Rouge overran the Cambodian government and deposed the royalty who were in charge of the country. They had an idea that may have even sounded good (and perhaps a little too close for comfort?) to spread the wealth, work for the common good, return to an agrarian based society and utilize the land to its maximum capacity. But in the process of implementing the new way - the Organization, as it was called, did what most of them do. It became cruel, frightened and corrupt.

The intelligentsia, professors, scholars and such, like Vaddey's father, were first to be taken. Then doctors, teachers, business people who wouldn't cave to the party line. Families were separated, possessions were outlawed, as people were dragged from their homes and sent into hard labor, working in the fields for up to twenty hours a day with little more than a rice broth to eat every other day. Stray bugs were secretly scarfed down for sustenance before one of the guards could witness such an act of defiance and punish the perpetrator with a gunshot to the head.

There are so many heroes in this novel but Vaddey's mother shines throughout as a woman who suffered unbearable loss. She could have simply stopped living, delivered from her anguish, the disappearance of her husband, the death of her youngest child, but she made a conscious decision to live to see her older child rise from the ashes. She became an endless well of love for her thirsty daughter. She grew stronger rather than weaker with each year of enslavement. She outwitted her captors, made deals with the devil, bartered for an extra slip of sugar cane or a cup of rancid rice to keep Vaddey alive. I marveled at her resilience.

Please don't let the subject matter keep you from reading this book. We owe it to the victims of this senseless cruelty to be a witness to their deaths. As Ms. Ratner honors them with her compelling language we, too, can read and remember that his happened in our lifetime. How many more genocides will there be? Visit  and listen to the author speak of her feelings as she wrote her book at the website:

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