In the Shadow of the Banyan

“In the Shadow of the Banyan,” by Vaddey Ratner is a powerful and heartbreaking book based on the horrific experiences Ratner and her family, and so many others, suffered in the 1970s when civil war broke out in Cambodia.

More than 2 million lives were lost when Khmer Rouge soldiers overthrew the government. Determined to make the country dependent on “the Organization,” the regime tried to rid Cambodia of the literate and educated. Soldiers split up families, banishing them to various areas of the country, forcing them to toil from dusk to dawn with little to eat, suffering illness and torture.

Seven-year-old Raami, the child who tells Ratner’s story, initially has no idea what is happening. Her parents and extended family live together in Phnom Penh in relative luxury. A descendant of royalty, her father is well respected, a prince, learned poet, and family storyteller. When her family is forced to flee their home, Raami’s old life is cast aside like the brace she wears for a leg affected by polio, which soldiers toss out like so much trash. Raami also loses her beloved father, his ties and loyalty to the fallen government leading to his demise.

These are the first of many horrors Raami must endure. Within two years, only remnants remain of her family unit, and the small girl wastes away in a forced labor camp, foraging for bugs to eat, anything to sustain her life.

Raami’s mother suffers an equally horrible plight, but is determined she and her daughter will survive. Her courage is limitless. She seeks an escape route after the regime collapses, one that eventually leads Raami and her mother to America. Their ability to endure the unthinkable is a tribute to the human spirit. Beautifully written in poetic language, and laced with stories from the Cambodian culture, “In the Shadow of the Banyan,” is a tribute to those who died in the “killing fields,” and to the author’s father, to whom this book is dedicated.