A Blessing Over Ashes by Adam Fifield
Perennial Books, 2001
Adam Fifield's A Blessing Over Ashes is an excellent book, and its greatest strength is that it isn't at all what we expect it to be.
There are many outstanding memoirs written by refugees from the killing fields. Given the subject matter, they make compelling reading. But there is a horrifying, numbing sameness to many of these accounts. They are mesmerizing, but compassion fatigue seems perilously close at hand. Fifield's book, however, is something different.
In 1984, Fifield's mother gathered the family together and made a bold proposal: they should, she suggested, add a member to their family: a Cambodian refugee. A Blessing Over Ashes is the story of the boy who became Adam's brother - a teenager named Soueth - and the lasting effects on Adam himself.
Fifield describes his mother's first attempts to educate her two sons about the ordeal that their prospective foster brother had endured: "His country had had a war and children like him were left with no parents or homes and had to live in crowded camps with other lost, starving children. She said the bad guys were called some fancy French name that sounded like a gourmet dessert... The fancy French guys had killed a lot of people, Mom said. Two million people."
Through Soueth's eyes, Fifield gives us a glimpse into the hell of the Khmer Rouge. But it's only a glimpse: this is not a book about Khmer Rouge Cambodia. Instead, it is a book about friends, about family, and about growing up. It is a book about a Cambodian living in a creaky old Vermont farmhouse, and a Vermont boy sitting in the shade of a thatch hut in the Cambodian countryside.
Odd cultural interplay brings this book to life. Fifield describes his wonderment at a shrine created by his brother, an improvised affair of incense, candles, fruit and flowers, invoked to evict the ghosts haunting Soeuth. "The shrine seemed to work. A few days after it was built, the hauntings ceased. His parents' ghosts had gone back to Cambodia or some other place, I supposed, and so had all the other ghosts, because I heard not one mysterious click or clack in the house after that. I laughed to myself when I thought about the bewildered spirits of old Vermont farmers now trapped in a Cambodian jungle."
Later, describing Soueth's trip back to Cambodia - and his own journey as well - Fifield introduces us to an experience that is rarely discussed elsewhere: that of the returning refugee. With a keen eye, he nails the details: Gold-bedecked Cambodian couriers, delivering cash to their homeland; long-forgotten relatives from the countryside, ill-at-ease in cosmopolitan Phnom Penh; and the odd combination of deference and demands placed on the figure at the center: a refugee, perhaps poor in America, but rich beyond belief in the eyes of his kin. Fifield shows us that nothing is as simple as it seems, and nothing is as easy as it seems: There is a unique pain that comes with seeing pleading eyes, and saying no; and there is another pain that comes with seeing pleading eyes, and saying yes.
There is one minor error in this book: former puppet dictator Heng Samrin is described as a "legendary Cambodian freedom fighter", an odd description for a former Khmer Rouge who defected only when his own region was threated by a purge. But that is nitpicking: on the whole, the book deals with complex, confusing issues, and it does so very well. There is a subtle difference between knowing and understanding. This is clearly a book written by someone who understands refugees, and who understands Cambodia. Blessing isn't merely about what happens; it's about what we learn from what happens. In one of the book's most moving passages, Fifield describes a quiet moment at home in the farmhouse:
"One night the power went out, leaving Soueth and me to do our homework by candlelight. The light from the candles was feeble and fuzzy, and we both had to squint. I eventually gave up, leaned back in my chair, and watched Soeuth. He was very still. Only his right hand and his eyes moved, and shadows flitted across his face. I sat very still, too, listening to my own breathing and to the rain outside. I wondered if this was how he had read in Cambodia, by candlelight. I thought about his family's story and guessed that if my own father had given me away to a band of murderers, I could never do homework again, could never think of much else aside from that one terrible thing.
"But he was doing his homework right now, here in front of me, and that thing still lived in him. Realizing this, I felt a great, slow upswelling of strength or hope or something else. I rose and brought a candle into the other room and held it up to the window and studied the reflection of my face. My cheekbones and the outline of my skull looked hard and strong, and I vowed then not to let the bad and clumsy things that lived inside me ever hold me back again."
Overflowing with strength, hope, and a brace of other virtues, A Blessing Over Ashes is highly recommended.
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