Vaddey Ratner is a remarkable woman whose experiences would have defeated a lesser person. Her debut novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan, is an autobiographical treatment of the Khmer Rouge's takeover of Cambodia and the subsequent systematic genocide.
Raami, the seven-year-old Vaddey surrogate, is the centerpiece and narrator of the horrendous events she witnesses and lives through. (Vaddey herself was five years old when the Khmer Rouge dispossessed her royal family, told them to leave their home forever and gave them a very short time to gather what possessions they could; they never saw their home again.) Raami, her little sister, Radana and her parents; Big Uncle, his wife and two sons; Auntie Tata and Grandmother Queen meet at another home, a designated destination in case of trouble. They are not allowed to stay there very long, but are once again driven out, this time to the countryside.
In rhetoric reminiscent of China's Great Revolution, soldiers with bullhorns scream at them, commanding them to forget the past in order to create a new Cambodia. It is in remembering her past, however, that Raami survives. Families are separated so that loyalty will revert to the state, not remain with individuals, yet Raami, who adores her father, a poet, never transfers allegiance from her family, even when her father is lost to them.
Four years of privation, illness, killingly hard work and sorrow beyond imagining are recounted with equal parts poignancy, lyrical reflection and heartrending remembrance of halcyon times at home, connected by Raami's hope for survival. Her beloved father is the reason that hope stays alive for Raami. "When I thought you couldn't walk, I wanted to make sure you could fly," he tells her, recalling the polio she had as an infant. "I told you stories to give you wings, Raami, so that you would never be trapped by anything--your name, your title, the limits of your body, this world's suffering."
Ratner's touching and beautifully written In the Shadow of the Banyan celebrates the human spirit, the power of story and imagination and the triumph of good over evil. --Valerie Ryan
Shelf Talker: A little girl witnesses the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge's takeover of Cambodia and survives by remembering her father's stories.