Although 'In the Shadow of the Banyan' is inspired by her childhood, Vaddey Ratner chose to write a novel rather than a memoir.Left by Jack Gruber, USA TODAY
Although 'In the Shadow of the Banyan' is inspired by her childhood, Vaddey Ratner chose to write a novel rather than a memoir.Tiny and exquisite like the Cambodian princess she is, Ratner also possesses the friendliness of a Midwesterner who spent her high school years in St. Paul. A summa cum laudeIvy League graduate married to her college sweetheart, she lives with her husband and daughter, 12, in this leafy suburb of Washington, D.C., complete with her daughter's fairy-tale treehouse out back.Ratner's own childhood, however, was very different — a nightmare spent in the killing fields of Cambodia.What a life.And now, what a book."This is the one story I had to write," says Ratner, 41. In stores this week, Ratner's first novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan (Simon & Schuster, $25), has emerged as one of this year's most anticipated books, thanks to early rave reviews. Although In the Shadow of the Banyan is inspired by her childhood, Ratner chose to write a novel rather than a memoir. Her goal wasn't to provide journalistic evidence of Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia, where it is estimated that the Khmer Rouge killed 1 million to 2 million people between 1975 and 1979.Rather, it was personal. "This book allows me to save my family, to immortalize them, to bring them back to life, for me to eternalize them," Ratner says.Most of all, it brings back her adored father. At age 5, Ratner saw him led away by soldiers. When, where and how he was killed, no one knows.Narrated by 7-year-old Raami, Banyan opens in magical luxury. Servants bustle about the Phnom Penh estate — the old gardener putting lotus flowers in iced water to stay fresh; Raami's nanny, her "milk mother," nagging her to get ready to dine with her grandmother, a high princess. (Like the author, Raami is connected to Cambodia's complicated royal bloodlines but not in line to inherit the throne.)Meanwhile, explosions can be heard outside as the Khmer Rouge circle the doomed city.Ratner opened her novel with a scene of peace "so you can see the beauty that is struggling to exist amid this war." Soon Raami and her family — mother, father, grandmother, aunts, uncles and baby sister — are forced at gunpoint to leave for the countryside. Because her father is a prince, he is targeted by the Communists trying to create a classless, self-sufficient, agrarian society. Raami witnesses the result: death, terror and starvation. Writing "an imaginative narrative" allowed Ratner to change details such as the narrator's age. Asked how a 5-year-old could remember so much, Ratner explains that her memories of her father were particularly strong because of the polio she suffered as an infant.Today, Ratner walks with a limp, but as a baby, the handicap was "devastating" in a culture that prized "physical perfection."Instead of shunning her and her metal leg brace, her father — a royal who had married a commoner — spent an enormous amount of time with Ratner. "He was always talking to me," she says. Ratner's ability to speak vanished for a period. She was mute when she and her mother escaped from Cambodia. (Ratner's baby sister died of malaria.) After two years in refugee camps, they came to the USA in 1981. Speaking no English when she arrived at age 11, Ratner went on to become her high school's valedictorian. She met and married her American husband — today an environmental expert — at Carleton College and later graduated from Cornell.Cambodia today is very different from the country Ratner fled. There is a king again — one of Ratner's relatives. Ratner lived in Cambodia from 2005 to 2009 when her husband was working for an environmental think tank.Although she didn't complete the manuscript and find an agent until she was an adult, Ratner says that "even as a little girl, I always knew I had to tell about living through this ordeal."I need the world to remember."For more information about reprints & permissions, visit our FAQ's. To report corrections and clarifications, contact Standards Editor Brent Jones. For publication consideration in the newspaper, send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include name, phone number, city and state for verification. To view our corrections, go to corrections.usatoday.com.