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Dark Shadows

A BLESSING OVER ASHES The Remarkable Odyssey of My Unlikely Brother By Adam Fifield William Morrow: 336 pp., $24

September 10, 2000|SYDNEY H. SCHANBERG | Sydney H. Schanberg, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the fall of Cambodia in 1975, has been a reporter, editor and columnist at The New York Times and Newsday. His book, "The Death and Life of Dith Pran," was the basis for the award-winning film "The Killing Fields."

In the winter of 1985, two teenaged boys meet in a big old farmhouse in Vermont. One is a doctor's son named Adam, 12, who lives with his family in the 12-room house with its high ceilings and a secret door to the attic and a swimming pool in the backyard. The other is Soeuth, 15, a scarred survivor from Cambodia by way of a refugee camp in Thailand, to which he had escaped. Soeuth, who is to be the foster brother of Adam and his younger sibling Dave, stands in the front room facing his new family and their soda, potato chips and welcome banner, stoic and withdrawn, a child-ancient with a baseball cap pulled down almost over his eyes. He has been through an inferno--the forced-labor death camps of the Khmer Rouge--hanging on to life by silence and cunning and also by eating lizards, spiders, water bugs and rats, anything that moved. He is unable to remember his family name. "Only we get one cup rice," Soeuth told Adam and Dave months later when they had pierced part of his shell, "so we go find animal. . . . Find what keep us survive."

"Rats!" Dave shrieked, "Gross!" "No," Soeuth said seriously. "Rat the best. Rat is fat. Good meat. Put on stick. Cook."

"A Blessing Over Ashes" is the true story of an American boy's growing-up with his "unlikely" brother Soeuth and their struggle to overcome a yawning cultural chasm, the kind of gulf that experience tells us can be reached across but never fully closed. It is rare for a writer's first book to so successfully realized. Adam Fifield is a young journalist who lives in New York City and who also collaborated on "Rudy!," the new and much-discussed biography of the city's mayor. One can of course find flaws, but "A Blessing" is written at once with stark emotional honesty and singular authenticity. Also with occasional humor, the kind birthed by the pain attached to self-discovery.

This is a special book, maybe a great one. I believe it deserves a wide audience. But then, as a journalist who has been deeply involved in Cambodia and who is drawn to lost causes, I am also realistic. I have come to know that most of the people who buy books don't have much interest in stories, no matter how special or lyrically written, that deal with bad things that happen to people in ruined little countries halfway around the world.

I should also explain that I have met Fifield and have followed his progress with interest. One reason he contacted me was that I, too, have a Cambodian "brother," Dith Pran, who guided me through the war and then, like Soeuth, was sent to labor camps yet survived. One can see that Fifield struggled mightily to grasp Soeuth's experiences and to get at the truth of their relationship. From my own Cambodian passage, I believe he succeeded as well as any Westerner can.

"When I was four," he writes, "and spending my days in the sandbox or on the swing set or chasing my dog, Oscar, around the yard, Soeuth was seven and a child slave in Pol Pot's Cambodia. For twelve, sometimes fourteen, hours a day, he planted rice seedlings along muddy rows of flooded fields. . . . All around him were acres and acres of other children, boys and girls, barefoot and bent toward the earth, shuffling along their rows, pushing their seedlings into the soupy water, sustained by a weary, collective rhythm of fear. . . . If it was not raining, the sun baked their backs and necks. Rain or not, their lower backs would flare with pain, from bending over all day, but if they stopped and stood up to stretch, they were whipped. Soeuth was whipped many times."

"A Blessing Over Ashes" is also a very American story: of two boys coming of age in the New England countryside, one of them a haunted refugee from an upheaval that started with an American war--the Vietnam War, which spilled into Cambodia with Richard Nixon's "incursion" in 1970 and then enveloped the entire country. For the next five years, the United States and its Cold War adversaries, using surrogate armies, visited bloody havoc all over Cambodia in a conflict that, though tangential, gave rise to the Khmer Rouge, triggered that country's descent into darkness and sent hundreds of thousands of "lucky" escapees to strange lands as displaced persons.

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