America’s part in bringing about the revolution in Cambodia is painful to acknowledge. It seems to have been one of the catalysts that brought death and destruction to the country and helped to inspire the rise of the Khmer Rouge, a brutal regime. Although it promised to bring about a more equitable, democratic environment for all, as is often the case, there is no utopia, and instead, the horrific policies of the Khmer Rouge were responsible for a widespread abuse of power that wreaked havoc upon the people. Pol Pot, inspired by Mao Tse-tung and Marx, set up a brutal, violent and vicious regime. Thousands upon thousands lost their lives. Those who were considered enemies of the regime, sometimes seemingly at random, were arrested, tortured and murdered. They simply disappeared. Families were torn apart and left to mourn their losses without explanation or recourse. They never found out about the circumstances surrounding their kin’s imprisonment and/or death. The author’s own history and family experiences inspired this work of fiction.This is a story about a great tragedy, but out of the landscape of horror, against all odds, hope eventually rose up to allow the country and its people to renew itself and begin again. As the tale moved back and forth in time, focusing on one or another of the characters, it presented the reader with the history of Cambodia, the culture of the people and their motives for supporting the Khmer Rouge with ultimately disastrous results for so many. At times it is a love story and at times a story of revolution and its consequences. It is a story of familial love and devotion, betrayal and loyalty. It is the story of Suteera and the Old Musician as their two generations united and began to understand what led to their misfortunes. It was in this way that they were able to forgive themselves for real and perceived wrongdoing and then to forgive and accept each other. They were able to begin again to love and respect their country and their culture and to return to the simplicity of their way of life.
Suteera Aung was 12 years old when she and her Aunt Amara escaped death in Cambodia. They made their way to America and resettled in Minnesota. The rest of her family had succumbed to the violence and war in Cambodia. Upon Amara’s death, Teera decided to return to Cambodia. She brought her aunt’s ashes with her to be left at the Temple there that Amara had continued to support throughout her life in America. She had also received a letter from someone who had been imprisoned with her father during Pol Pot’s regime. He had sheltered with the monks at that temple for the last quarter century. He had some of her father’s musical instruments. Both men had been musicians. He wanted to return them to their rightful owner as he had been charged to do so, by her father before his death.
When Teera returns to the country of her birth, she is drawn to her past and her heritage. She meets the other man who once loved her mother and who knew her father. He had sheltered with the monks at the temple supported by her aunt for the last quarter of a century. She also meets a former monk, Dr. Narunn, and as her heart opens to him and she learns of her father’s shared past with the Old Musician, she begins to discover the truth behind the inhumane cruelty they both suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. She begins to understand her own anger and discovers she can love again and forgive those who have hurt her. Although she has lived in America for much of her life, she finds she loves her own country even with its poverty and need, or perhaps because of it. There are few creature comforts, but it calls to her; after all, she thinks, how much does she really need? She has witnessed the suffering of orphans and survivors and she wants to help others more than she wants luxuries for herself. As the novel tells the story of the rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge, the author reminds us that it also tells the story of survivors and their path to forgiveness.