20 Sep / A Blessing Over Ashes: The Remarkable Odyssey of My Unlikely Brother by Adam Fifield [in aOnline]
With A Blessing Over Ashes: The Remarkable Odyssey of My Unlikely Brother, Adam Fifield adds a new twist to the currently trendy suffering-child memoir boom (a lá Angela’s Ashes – and really, no disrespect intended because that was a remarkable read). Fifield weaves his own story with the tale of his brother, Soeuth Saut, a Cambodian refugee who joined the family on a “snow-blurred night, a few weeks after the Christmas of 1984.”
The result, an intricately woven my-story-his-story-that-quickly-becomes-our-story, is surprisingly effective, in spite of the occasional moments when the reader is left thinking, ‘hey how did he really know what his brother was thinking at that exact moment?’ Indeed, the intertwined saga is, in turns, haunting, funny, heart-breaking, and inspiring.
Fifield and Saut became brothers at 11 and 15, respectively. Understandably, the adjustment period was difficult: Saut entered the Fifield home wary, stoic, and silent. Together with younger brother, Dave, Fifield slowly established a tentative relationship with their new sibling – and they learned that he could catch fish with his bare hands, and that in order to survive in war-ravaged Cambodia, he had learned to catch (and eat) snakes, rats, lizards, and bugs, just as well.
Saut is indeed a survivor – of child labor camps, starvation, the loss of his family, and the witnessing of mutilation and murder. Now suddenly an American, Saut feels an utter stranger, even among the lovingly supportive Fifield family. By high school, he has discovered the numbing qualities of alcohol and drugs. He also discovers that he is especially adept at fixing cars, a skill that supports him steadily.
In 1992, Saut is reunited with his Cambodian family, long thought dead, but the reunion is bittersweet as he bears witness to his family’s difficult life, a sharp contrast to his own more materially comfortable existence. When he returns to the U.S., Saut is even more unanchored, and moves to various points along the West Coast where Asian Americans are less of an anomaly, only to realize that he is most at home back East. Yet even after he marries, he remains a restless outcast.
He returns to his birthland once more, this time with Fifield by his side. The journey proves to be a merging of Saut’s two distinct lives – his Cambodian past and his American present. The result: a remarkable odyssey indeed.