How I Came to Be Adopted by a Cambodian Family (Part I)

Vantha (l.) and Vanthy in 1981.

(This is the first part of a two-part story. I will post the second part next week.)

I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania when the Cambodian Holocaust took place, from 1975 to 1979, and the nightmare in that country filled me with an impotent outrage. I can’t explain why, even now. I’m not Cambodian myself; I’m Pennsylvania Dutch, and two more distant cultures are difficult to imagine. I didn’t know any Cambodians. I scarcely knew what a Cambodian was. All I knew was what I had read: that the Khmer Rouge insurgents who had seized control of that country in April of 1975 had turned the entire nation into a huge concentration camp. They allowed no foreigner to enter the country, no Cambodian to leave. They’d emptied the cities, forcing everyone into subsistence agriculture in the countryside. Cambodia had no motor vehicles, no post office, no television or radio, no schools, no doctors or hospitals. Just endless days of backbreaking labor in the fields under the burning sun and the watchful eye of the Khmer Rouge soldiers with their AK-47 rifles.

If you were too weak to work, they killed you. If you complained, they killed you. If you tried to eat anything more than the starvation rations they allotted, they killed you. If you had worked for the former government, they killed you. If you had an education, they killed you. If you knew how to read and write, or wore glasses, or knew how to drive a car, they killed you. And many more who weren’t killed starved to death.

Estimates of the number of victims were in the millions. All this information was available in the U.S. in the 1970s, if you knew where to look for it. I felt outrage at what was surely the worst crime since the Allies had shut down the Nazi death camps. And I felt impotence because no one around me seemed to care. In the late 1970s, the last thing Americans wanted to think about was Indochina. We spent far more time and attention debating whether disco was the best thing that had ever happened to popular music or the worst. Whether Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind had overshadowed George Lucas’s Star Wars, or vice versa.

Meanwhile, then Senator George McGovern, noted for his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War, called for a United Nations force to invade Cambodia and oust the Khmer Rouge. Everyone laughed. “Now George McGovern wants to go to war in Indochina.” I thought he had a good idea.

In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. I remember trying to explain to one of my friends at Penn that this was a good thing. “But now the communists will be running the country,” she said.
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Boy Meets World

My Side of the Mountain
by Jean Craighead George.

My Side of the Mountain was a very special book for me. I read it when I was eleven years old, and I suppose that was the perfect age. A few months afterward, Paramount Pictures released a film adaptation, and I begged my dad to take me to see it. I have thoughts about the film version, but I will save them for a separate post. Here I want to talk about the book. I recently re-read it, 49 years later, to see how it held up. I’m pleased to report that I think it holds up very well.

From what I can tell, noodling around on the internet, the book is still well regarded in many quarters. It has won many awards. It’s the sort of book that teachers and librarians are apt to recommend to young people. It’s the story of Sam Gribley, an adolescent boy, perhaps fourteen years old, give or take a year, and the novel opens with Sam living on his own in the Catskill Mountains in December, hunkered down against a big snowstorm as he tells his story. He lived in what must have been a very crowded New York City apartment with his parents and eight (!) brothers and sisters. You won’t be surprised that Sam finds it stifling. He dreams of the outdoors, a dream shared by no one else in his family. When he hears from his father that his Gribley forefathers once owned a farm somewhere near Delhi, New York, Sam resolves to run off and live on his own at the old Gribley farm. His father indulges his fantasy, expecting Sam to return home chastened after a day or two on his own.

Surprise! Sam not only survives in the Catskills wilderness, he thrives, after a rocky start. December blizzard Sam recounts (with some embarrassment) how May tenderfoot Sam struggled to survive his first night in the wild. He whittled a fishhook out of twigs and cried after a trout broke it. He finally succeeded in catching a few fish, but utterly failed to start a fire and spent the night hungry, cold, frightened, and miserable.

But Sam learns and from this inauspicious beginning builds a life for himself alone in the forest. Most of the story is Sam solving the problems of keeping himself fed, clothed, and sheltered and storing up food for the coming winter and his occasional interactions with other people who stumble across him. Among his accomplishments, two stand out. First, he burns out the inside of a huge hemlock tree to build himself a shelter, complete with storage niches for his provender and a clay fireplace so he can keep himself warm. (He is inspired by stories of Native Americans using this technique to make dugout canoes.) Second, he steals a falcon chick, which he names Frightful after the experience of capturing her, and raises her as a hunting bird, with guidance from the local library.

It’s a charming story of a smart, kindly, persistent boy taking on the challenge of living in the wilderness and not only surviving, but doing it in style. Some of this may seem implausible, and that’s the biggest rap the book’s detractors have against it. Sam not only copes in the wilderness, he begins to make it look easy. Do not mistake this story for a gritty, realistic portrayal of what it would mean to be alone in the forest, surviving on your own wits. Still, Sam does dispense good advice, even if it is doubtful he could have learned all this reading in the New York Public Library, as he claims.

Even harder to swallow is the idea that Sam’s parents would let him run away, then not search for him frantically. Not when he doesn’t return home in a day or two; not even after he’s gone for months and winter sets into the Catskills. This was only marginally plausible in 1959; today, these parents should expect a visit from a social worker with some hard and awkward questions.

I could understand if these difficulties are too much for some modern readers, though I found the book as delightful at the age of sixty as I did at eleven, and would counsel 21st century readers to overlook the plausibility issues—think of My Side of the Mountain as an historical novel, or a fantasy, if you must—and focus instead on the deeper emotional truth at the heart of the book.

Adolescent kids—especially boys—feel the call to separate from their parents and make their own way in the world. It’s a scary moment, torn as they are between the child’s yearning for familial security and the budding adult desire to stand on one’s own two feet and find a place in the world. The message of My Side of the Mountain is this: the world may sometimes be cold, or lonely, or frightening, but you are capable of more than you realize. You have it in you not only to survive, but to thrive.

That is reason enough to love this book, and to recommend it to today’s crop of young readers, who need its message as much as kids ever did.