I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Surviving against all odds

I don't usually do book reviews for this blog, but I've been lost for the past couple of days in the Japanese occupation of Malaysia and Java during World War II through two very absorbing books. I just finished the second one and am sitting here pondering the meaning of surviving through what, to me, seems to be unbearable circumstances. The first book is historical fiction: The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng, a Malaysian who wrote his first book in 2007 about this tumultuous time. An excerpt from a review by Su Lin Lewis of the Times Literary Supplement:
The Gift of Rain is a war novel with a personal odyssey at its heart, one that complicates the stark lines of right and wrong during wartime. Tan Twan Eng exposes the way in which the complexities of collaboration and resistance, and the duties to one's country, are made more difficult by a mixed-race heritage and the demands of friendship. 
I had a hard time getting starting with this book, as I would go to bed pretty tired every night and  put it aside as I began to fade. But Friday night I couldn't put it down and was up late reading it, finishing it yesterday morning. I cried for quite awhile after closing the cover, which I found to be very satisfying. A weighty book that absorbs me like that and gives my angst a focus doesn't come along that often. I finished it wanting to know more about the period.

I went to Village Books, my favorite local bookstore, to see if the author has written any other books, but he hasn't.  However, one of the bookstore owners, Chuck, and I had a conversation about another book he highly recommended covering the same time period. This one is a memoir, written by a woman a few years older than me who lives right here in Bellingham: The Flamboya Tree. To think that I've probably walked right by Clara Kelly, I was intrigued, so I bought a used copy of her book and brought it home. Within a few hours, I had finished her story.

Clark Olink Kelly has this picture of the flamboya hanging in her home here in Bellingham, the only tangible piece of memorabilia surviving from that time in her life. She lived for almost four years in a Japanese internment camp in Java. By the time she left that camp, she had spent half of her life there and wanted to write down the memories of that time, especially of her mother's incredible strength of will and love that gave them the ability to survive this almost unendurable situation. I am amazed that her mother, who had grown up as a privileged Dutch citizen until taken away with her three children, found a way to survive and to bring all of them through that terrible time.

It really makes me wonder about how we find the strength within us to go through periods when it doesn't seem possible to find the will to take one more breath, much less to keep struggling against all odds. That link above takes you to an interview with Clara, so you can get a glimpse of the wonderful mother and grandmother she is today.

It reminds me also of another book I read in my twenties that affected me profoundly, Man's Search for Meaning, written by Viktor Frankl in 1946 about his experience as a concentration camp inmate. It describes a psychotherapeutic method he developed during that time, and he found the will to live. It has always fascinated me as to what makes one person just lay down and die when confronted with adversity, and another rise above it, even to create something transcendent out of the experience.

The 65th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima was this week as well, and my country, which is the only one so far to use the atomic bomb on another population, sent representatives to Japan's annual memorial for the first time ever, acknowledging the horrific loss of life in an official capacity. That really stunned me, since I assumed that this had been done long ago. The Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima is well worth visiting. The inhumanity of war hasn't changed throughout history, but maybe, just maybe, something is coming to fruition that started seven decades ago. And maybe that something is positive. We won't know during my lifetime, most likely, but I like to think that humanity will choose to survive against all odds.


Stella Jones said...

The Gift of Rain is a very evocative title, isn't it and it must be well written to enable you to slip between its covers and lose your own life in Tan Twan Eng's; experiencing how the author faced such extreme trials and tribulations. I love how one book opens a door to others and you describe the transition well here. I was like that when I started finding out about Wicca, discovering my roots and thirsting for more and more and more of the same. You just want to know every little details, don't you, so you can understand what these extraordinary people went through. Then to find that there are more extraordinary people right on your doorstep with intimate knowledge of the same period, is well worth seeking their stories out.
Very interesting post. You made me want to know more too.
Blessings, Star

Linda Reeder said...

Beautifully written commentary. I don't know if these are books I want to explore or not, war being the hellish situation that it is, but they are obviously uplifting reads.
I love your optimistic conclusion.

Anonymous said...

It is no doubt politically incorrect to say this, but I want to be honest. I am not sorry that the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. I simply hate the Japanese for what they did to my family in Korea. And who told them to bomb Pearl Harbor?

Donna B. said...

War is always ugly and loved ones are killed and mamed. I would imagine the Janpanese have no less grief than we did, however, they teamed with the Germans and Italians and bombed us at Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. We bombed them almost three years later, ending the War.

"War does not determine who is right - only who is left." ~ Bertrand Russell ~

"I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, 'Mother, what was war?'" ~ Eve Merriam ~

"The release of atom power has changed everything except our thinking... the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker." ~ Albert Einstein ~

" If we do not end war - war will end us. Everybody says that, millions believe it, and nobody does anything." ~ HG Wells ~

Gigi said...

I, too, like to think that humanity will survive. Hope. Hope is what keeps people going, despite all odds. So, I just keep hoping.

Nancy said...

Thanks for the reviews. I read Man's Search for Meaning in college. A life-changing tome, for sure. I'll make note of the others - I think I may even have The Gift of Rain on my Amazon list - but it could be a similar title.

I, too, have always been fascinated by the strength some people have to face adversity and not only survive, but to eventually flourish.

Dianne said...

I like to think and hope that humanity will survive, perhaps even thrive spiritually

This is a wonderfully written essay on the books, on history, on humanity

thanks for sharing

and Isadora sends you a big paw hug :)

Far Side of Fifty said...

The human spirit is so strong in some people, I read "The Passing of the Night" a long time ago, and then heard the author speak on Thanksgiving day in Florida..he was thankful for a sliver of soap when he was a POW. I think the bottom line is that God won't give you more than you can handle:)

California Girl said...

Your reviews intrigue me, particularly the second book. I think everyone has read Viktor Frankl but me. My husband was a Psych major in college & took an MSW in grad school and was always talking about Frankl and Elizabeth Kubler Ross.

Anyway, appropriate commentary for the Hiroshima bombing. Others this week have written of it. Roy wrote they actually celebrate the event in Rhode Island to this day. He was not amused.

Whitney Lee said...

I don't know why some people keep on keeping on while others give in, or give up. I believe we all have a purpose here and that, perhaps, some people's purpose is fulfilled by letting go when they do. I'm not expressing this thought very well. Hopefully you grasp what I'm trying to say.

I went to Dachau concentration camp when I was in Germany. It struck me in much the same way. There's a hush, a looking inward, that is difficult to describe. The acts of atrocity that people are capable of committing against one another are horrifying.

Unknown said...

Since someone quoted her, I wonder if Eve Merriam would accept a small modification to her words:

"I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, 'Mother, what was war?' -- so long as he does not also ask, 'Mother, what was freedom?'"