Two copies of IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN by Vaddey Ratner arrived in the office a few months ago. My son, Greg, grabbed one and read 100 pages on his train ride home and emailed me from the train to say, “This is an incredible book.” By the next day, he had finished it and was hounding me to read it so we could talk about it. When I got a few pages in, I saw why and knew that the voice of seven-year-old Raami was not going to be one I forget anytime soon. The book is set in 1975 after the Cambodian Civil War as Cambodia is overtaken by the Khmer Rouge. Raami and her family, who have a prosperous life, are ousted from their home and held in the clutches of the Khmer Rouge, who move them from camp to camp, where survival under primitive and abusive conditions become the world of her childhood. The genocide during this time kills more than two million people.
While this story is told as fiction, the author was five when her family was forced to leave their home, and thus the story is informed from experience, which made it even more powerful to me. I cannot imagine being a child going through the ravage, the destruction, the cruelty, the randomness of the violence…it is all so vividly told. But through it all is a message of hope and the reminder of the depth of the human spirit. Stories like this reach deep inside us and are, dare I say, life-changing. Vaddey sharing her story honors the lost. Reading it, I thought of THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK and, as I always do, wondered how my own family would have dealt with events like this.
By using a child as her narrator, Ratner captures a story that is both very unique and raw, and it makes this story an incredible emotional journey. Just as we all remember “the girl in the attic,” I think readers will recall this modern heroine the same way.
The other morning, I was talking books with my mother and told her about BANYAN, as we have come to call it around the office. She remembered Greg calling her all those months ago to tell her she had to read it --- and she cannot recall him ever speaking to her that passionately about a book.
This is the BEST book I have read all year. And I cannot wait to talk to others about it as well.