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)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This sounds like a really great book. Thanks for the suggestion.

    I gave you an award! Check it out.


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