In 1975 – when Vaddey Ratner’s harrowing tale of her life in Cambodia begins – I was a year out of college. Free of the Vietnam War (if not its consequences), happily immersed in sexual liberation and cocaine-fueled rock and disco, we partied like there was no tomorrow. For two million Cambodians, during those same years, there was no tomorrow. We, and the entire world, looked the other way.
The Shadow of the Banyan Tree will ensure that you never forget the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime in the Cambodian killing fields between 1975 and 1979. Ratner chose to fictionalize her story in order to add depth to what she experienced as a child and to condense the sorrow and the historical facts.
“War entered my childhood world not with the blasts of rockets and bombs but with my father’s footsteps . . .” the opening lines of Ratner’s 2012 best seller foretell the link to her father’s poetry that helps her survive the loss of nearly everyone in her family and the years of cruelty and deprivation in forced labor camps. “I write because words give me wings,” he told her.
Endowed with her father’s poetic sense Vaddey Ratner is able to evoke clear, sharp scenes of insane cruelty, of life at the very edge of starvation, of labor beyond human endurance while lifting us up out of the misery to an ethereal level of hope and human love. She re-shapes her father’s poetry into her own. “I kept pace with him, my steps following the rise and fall of his voice:
They say mine is a ravaged land,
Scarred and broken by hate –
On a path to self-extermination.
Yet no other place
So resembles my dream of heaven.”
In 1979 Vaddey Ratner and her mother slipped across the Cambodian border into Thailand. In 1981 at the age of 11, not knowing English, she arrived in the United States. In 1990 she graduated as her high school’s valedictorian and four years later as summa cum laude from Cornell University.
An extraordinary woman. An extraordinary book. Thank you, Vaddey Ratner, for helping me understand – at least a little – what I had ignored, blinded by the excesses of American youth.
Footnote: Earlier this year Vaddey Ratner published The Music of the Ghosts – the story of her return to Cambodia. More at: Music of the Ghosts