Book Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey Ratner

Book Review: In the Shadow of the BanyanVaddey Ratner

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Historical Fiction: In the Shadow of the BanyanVaddey Ratner

In the Shadow of the Banyan is a beautiful, haunting, exquisite story that will live in my heart for a long, long time. “War entered my childhood world not with the blasts of rockets and bombs but with my father’s footsteps as he walked through the hallway, passing my bedroom toward his.” Gripping the reader from that first sentence, Vaddey Ratner takes us back to 1970s Cambodia. Told from the perspective of seven-year old Raami, we follow her family from their home in Phnom Penh to exile in the countryside and then from exile to forced labor. It is a story of survival more than triumph, and not everyone in her family survives.

 

The Khmer Rouge killed hundreds of thousands of their own people. Some estimates are over two million deaths during their four-year rule. Many were executed for supporting the former regime. Many more were worked to death or died of starvation in forced labor camps. Others became sick and died from inadequate or non-existent medical care. Raami is witness to every form of death and atrocity visited by the “Organization,” the term the regime used to describe itself. She herself is forced to labor, prohibited from going to school, taught to forget her past and serve the revolution. Although she holds onto the memories of her childhood including the poems and stories of her father, her spirit and her body are brutalized by misuse.

 

Yet, Raami is resilient. In the face of death, abuse, loss, illness, forced labor, and every other imaginable horror visited on her and her family, she continues. Despite there being no reason to hope, Raami lives. Despite every reason to lose her ability to love, Raami loves. As much as it is the story of one little girl, In the Shadow of the Banyan is the story of the Cambodian people. Brutalized and forsaken, both she and they survived.

 

There was a time, not too many years ago, when America was a place of hope for refugees and other victims of brutal regimes. Author Vaddey Ratner was a little girl in the “killing fields” of Cambodia. She, like her character, survived those days and came to America. Ratner arrived as a refugee in 1981 not knowing English. In 1990, she graduated as valedictorian of her high school class and went to Cornell, where she graduated summa cum laude. In these days when this country seems to have strayed from that vision of being a country of immigrants, perhaps this book can remind us why an America that stands for freedom for the oppressed and hope for the persecuted is so important.

 

Ratner may have arrived not knowing English, but she has become a master of the language. Her prose is achingly beautiful. She spends paragraphs describing rain, then compares that rain to the sorrow expressed by her mother. One character tells the story behind his shaved head and his scars, describing in detail how he obtained those scars to save his family–and how it ultimately did not matter. Ratner weaves Cambodian folk tales into the story through poetic retellings by Raami’s father and through more traditional stories told by peasants and servants Raami meets. These details bring light to the darkness of the story.

 

In the Shadow of the Banyan may be told from a child’s perspective, but it is not a children’s book. It is a book about the loss of childhood, the loss of an entire generation’s childhood, the loss of an entire nation’s innocence. It is also a book about resilience and hope. Ratner reminds us that the most desperate people can embody grace and empathy. Hopefully, she reminds us that the most blessed people can do the same.

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Book Review: In the Shadow of the BanyanVaddey Ratner

Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

Fiction: Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

0812985400

George Saunders book “Lincoln in the Bardo” has won some of the most prestigious literary awards given, including being only the second American book to win the Man Booker Prize. It is an extraordinary book, truly unlike anything I have read before.

 

The book is set in the few days following the death of Willie Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son. Willie Lincoln died of illness during the Civil War. He was a boy who many felt was the very image of his father, more in his heart and demeanor than in his appearance, and Lincoln was devastated by this personal loss. Compounding the loss of his child, the progress of the Civil War was very much in doubt at this time. It was a dark period in the White House.

 

Saunders sets this scene with quote after quote from historians, contemporary observers, and historical documents. In fact, the entire book appears to be a series of quotes in succession. Fans and critics of the president have their say, with both noting that the boy died the same night as the White House held a gala. No doubt the music from the gala traveled to the boy’s sick room, but provided no comfort to the child nor to his distracted parents who frequently excused themselves from their guests to check on him. Many of the quotes are eerily similar to what we read on Twitter and other social media today. Criticism and defense of the president has a strong historical foundation.

 

Once the boy dies, he is interred in a nearby cemetery. The style of the book continues as a series of quotes, but now the quotes are from other residents of the cemetery. People who died and are interred there now get their chance to weigh in, observing the burial of the child and interpreting the actions of the living through the lens of their own lives. And Willie Lincoln himself gets a voice, reflecting upon his own short life and the love he shared with his father.

 

“The Bardo” is a Buddhist construct, a place of waiting where the dead can let go of their lives and then move on to the next plane of existence. In this cemetery lie people who have been waiting, some for days, others for decades, unable to let go of their hopes and dreams, or their “sins” and wrongdoings, and transition to the next stage. We meet and get to know these self-imprisoned souls in their own words and in the descriptions given of them by their fellows. Saunders’ “quotes” are extraordinary, finding voices for people who are lost, alone, disenfranchised, abandoned, and confused. Each character has a unique voice. Their interactions with each other allow their stories to unfold. We meet ordinary people, white and black, rich and poor, shopkeepers and preachers and housewives and the child of a president, and each gets the chance to speak and be heard. There is no “plot” in the traditional sense, but we find the story moving forward by the statements and conversations of the spirits stuck waiting for futures they will not get, held back by pasts they cannot undo.

 

President Lincoln comes to the cemetery to visit his son’s body. That simple event, one that is recorded by historians and contemporaries, creates a crisis of faith in the Bardo. Each spirit waiting there is forced to confront the real reason why he or she is still waiting. Their stories, told in the first person with all the biases and lack of perspective we have about ourselves, are the beauty of this book. You can almost see Saunders sitting there with a tape recorder, capturing their conversations and reflections and sharing them verbatim, unvarnished and unredacted. The author has an extraordinary gift for finding the voice and unveiling the motivations of his characters.

 

Lincoln in the Bardo touched me. Deeply. The book may be about ghosts. But it is the most profoundly alive story I have read in years.

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Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders