Monday, July 23, 2012

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Hatner

Raami is seven in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge forces everyone to leave the cities of Cambodia.  Raami, along with the hundreds of thousands forced from the cities, are put into work camps in peasant villages all over Cambodia.  With people dying all around her from starvation or from be suspected of being against the Organization, Raami struggles to survive and stay with what is left of her family.

This was pretty amazing.  It was hard to read, but beautifully done.  Vaddey Hatner chose to write a novel rather than a memoir because she was 5 years old in 1975.  She wanted to have the freedom to tell the story, but everything that happened to Raami happened to Vaddey.

My knowledge of the Khmer Rouge and what happened in Cambodia was very limited.  I knew about Pol Pot, and that millions of Cambodians died, and that was about it.  The problem with history in high school is that no one every gets past the 60s and the Vietnam War.  As we get further and further away from the 60s, we're missing out on learning about a growing chunk of history.  After I'd read the first chapter of In the Shadow of the Banyan I had to stop and go do a bit of background research so I would have a little foundation for understanding.

It was just so heartbreaking, especially seen through a child's eyes.   Raami and her family have only know love and plenty.  War has been going on for some time, and just when the family thinks it's over the Khmer Rouge invade the city, forcing everyone out by saying that the Americans were going to bomb.  This was not true.  The Khmer Rouge believed everything Western most be done away with.  This included most technology.  They believed that the peasants were the true Cambodians, and wanted all Cambodians to live this life.

The soldiers were young and confused and incredibly disorganized.  There was so little planning.  Families were split up, and people were routinely taken away and killed.  Raami's family, as part of the royal family, was constantly in danger.  People like them, along with intellectuals and religious figures were killed.

Raami constantly struggles to make sense of what's happening around her, but of course there's no sense to make.  Finally all she can do is focus on surviving.  Because of terrible planning on the part of the Khmer Rouge, most of the rice crops people were being forced to work were ruined by flooding, and mass starvation spreads.  Raami dreams of the day that she will be able to fly away, but steadily loses hope that will ever happen.

The language was so beautiful.  It almost made it harder to read, reading such a beautiful written story about something so horrible and senseless.  Specific scenes stand out in my mind: Raami eating anything she can chew including insects and raw rice; another child ordering a solider to kill someone; the execution of someone who was once in charge.

It will make you sad, but you should read this, so this terrible thing that really happened will not be forgotten.

In the Shadow of the Banyan comes out August 7, 2012.

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