The Flamboya Tree: Memories of a Mother’s Wartime Courage

by Clara Olink Kelly

WARNING: THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS

This is such a beautiful and captivating story, of a strong mother protecting her three children (one of them only a few weeks old) during the four-life existence at a concentration camp in Java during WWII. The Japanese took control of the South Pacific Islands to ensure that no reinforcement or supplies can enter China during the war, and to obtain access to the valuable natural resourses such as oil and rubber. All the men and teenage boys were sent to labor camps, while the women and children lived in fenced villages under the sadistic rule of the Japanese soldiers.

This is indeed, a lesser known part of the history of WWII. I did not know, for example, that the local people at that time were so hostile to the Dutch rule and longing for independence, that a prisoner escaping from a camp would face greater danger among the natives and murdered brutally, that the hostile villagers would hurl stones and insults to the prisoners inside, rather than smuggling in food out of kindness. When the author’s brother was happily flying a kite he made, no doubt a lovely escape from his dreadful living condition, his kite was cruelly cut down amidst sneers and cheers from the other side of the fence. How heart wrenching it must be for the litte boy.

For me, the saddest part is not the period during the camp, but when they were in Bangkok waiting to return to Holland. For in the camp, the situation was horrendous with its constant threat of cruel punishment, humiliation and starvation, but it was similar to and not necessarily worse than what millions were suffering during the same time in history. By no way am I suggesting that they did not suffer enough, just that when one have read enough war memoirs, one gets some idea already what life was like under those circumstances.

Therefore, what was more shocking to me was their treatment after liberation. When the author was sick in the hospital, they put her on a table and poured water over her to wash her, collecting the water in a basin to be used for the next patient. She and her younger brother were too weak to feed themselves, so her older brother ate their bowl of rice gruel (could hardly blame the starving little boy); no nurse cared, until her mother was able to visit and found them near dying and had to carry them, one tucked under each arm, to take a bus back to their “home”. As the author said, the children didn’t care as they never knew, or hardly remember anything better, but for all the adults who know what normal life is like (being expatriates, many of the Europeans had lived life of luxury, pampered by servants), that must be despressing indeed not to find comfort and relief after liberation. It was the hope that had sustained them during the hardship of the camp. As the mother told the children stories about Holland, about snow, about Christmas and other things, they are fantasies for the children, but for her, it was a longing, a determination to experience these things again.

It was also painful to read of their grandmother’s initial reaction upon their return. Her remark of “Why didn’t you escape?” and her inability to understand how her grandchildren had such horrendous manners and didn’t wolf down the food she prepared (their stomach just couldn’t take in all that food).

This is a great testimony to a mother’s love for her children.

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Published in: on January 30, 2009 at 6:41 pm  Comments (2)  

Pretty Birds

by Scott Simon

I picked up this book because I recognize Scott Simon from NPR. Simon is a NPR Weekend Edition host, and a journalist who has won many award including the Emmy and the Peabody. This is a novel based on his experience covering the war in Sarajevo and his interview with one of the teenage girl snipers.

During the conflict, both sides employed teenage girls to act as snipers. This free up men to battle in the front, and also for the fact that teenage girls have the cool, discipline and patience less common in boys of the same age. This story is not a biography but rather an active imagination based on his interviews.

Irena is a 17 year old with a Serbian father and Muslim mother. This fact doesn’t much concern her – what she is interested in, are her basketball team, her Air Jordan, her coach, and the little African Grey parrot she keeps, Pretty Bird. However, all that is changed when the Bosnian Serbs begin their campaign of ethnic cleansing, and Irena and her parents are brutalized and driven from their home on the mostly Serb side of town. They fled to her grandmother’s apartment, only to find her slain on the staircase. Irena begins working at a brewery, which is actually a front for a team of snipers. An assistant principal from her former high school spots the talent in Irena, and she becomes very good at her job.

This is a powerful story of human survivial in adversity. Time and again we are reminded of the humanness of all characters involved – ordinary people trying their best to survive, hoping for the best for their loved ones. Irena especially is a vibrant character, but others have their shining moments too, including the nurse at the hospital, the vet, and the other members at the brewery.

The story is made more impactful by the sense of humor throughout. When the driver is kidnapped and later moved by how much ransom his group is willing to pay, he is told that they are paying for his truck. When young Irena has a chance to talk to her Christian friend Amela over radio, they screams over the divorce of Prince Charles and Diana. A character tells a joke “What is the difference between here and Auschwitz?” “They have gas, we don’t”.

Admittedly, this story only tells one side of the story, and as a fiction rather than an unbiased news report, it does take side. However, one walks away from the book with a strong sense that war is brutal. It reduces people to live in unhuman condition, in divides friends into enemy.

Published in: on January 19, 2009 at 6:20 pm  Comments (1)  

Travels With A Tangerine: A Journey In The Footnotes Of Ibn Battutah

by Tim Mackintosh-Smith

I have to say it’s not a fast and easy read, but I am glad I did persevere to finish it. My first book to finish in 2009!

At moments the book does feel a bit repetitive, as the author visited one tomb after another, in unfamiliar places, of people I’ve never heard of (the maps in front were indispensable). He was following the 400-year-old footsteps of Ibn Battutah, the most famous Arabic traveller from Tangier (hence the Tangerine in the title – no other citrus was featured in the book). I am sure if I were more knowledgable about Middle Eastern culture and geography, I may find it more interesting; on the other hand, even were he to travel in search of European castles, Asian temples or Napa vineyards, things could still go stale after a while. What makes the book interesting was the human contact throughout his journey. Most of the people he met were friendly, easy-going, tolerant, cultured and generously hospitable. Incidentally, a few days ago I watched an Anthony Bourdain show, where he travelled to Saudi Arabia. His conclusion of his visit was in a similar tone, that he found the people open, generous and fun-loving, very different from the images we were usually shown or conditioned to conjour up.

The author is a scholarly traveller, and the amount of research he did about IB, his work and his period was evident. He did, however, write with a witty sense of humour. Not the laugh-out-loud type of J. Maarten Troost, but a subtle type that is more likely to joke at himself than his subjects.

Published in: on January 4, 2009 at 8:02 pm  Leave a Comment