“Think of Hopeful Thoughts”

IMG_6538Savanna lives a peaceful and fairly happy life with her husband, apart from some basic human concerns. She’s about ten weeks pregnant and her father suffers from diabetes. She, her husband, and a few friends leave their hometown and set out on their motorboat to Neak Loung to purchase insulin for her father. Out of nowhere three bombs explode into the river before them, sending shockwaves throughout the area and causing their boat to capsize. Black smoke rises in the air. Villages along the riverbank go up in flames. Floating houses burn down. The once luscious green landscape is covered with ashes, debris, and body parts. Survivors become paralyzed with shock, fear, and pain. Those who are not killed but are still mobile jump into the river to rescue their injured loved ones. Then more bombs come at them like rain. In an instant, their part of the country turns into an inferno.

Savanna’s friends and her husband have all died. She is among the few to survive the American bombardment, only to face the wrath of the Khmer Rouge, who act out of anger, resentment, and hatred against the Americans who indiscriminately bomb their country and kill their loved ones when the country is not even at war with America. How does she cope in an environment where people no longer trust each other and are only out for themselves? Does Savanna have the power within her to save her own life and that of her child?

Savanna is a woman of little means, but she is able to survive and overcome all odds by the power she finds within her. She taps into all of her senses every time she is thrust into a life-or-death situation. Her loving and brave first husband, Isanapura, her loving and loyal second husband, John Harrison, and a selfless western doctor, Mark LaPorte, all play their parts in saving her, but ultimately it is the power within her that guides her to safety.

When Savanna gets marooned on an island with her husband who suffers from bombing injuries and uses his last strength to save her and their unborn child from a giant monitor lizard that attacks them, it’s her wit that saves her from the depression of his death, her loneliness, starvation, and the mental anguish of missing her father and losing everything. She then slips and slides into a bomb crater and is exposed to Agent Orange—a poisonous gas—or toxic fumes from the fire. She wakes herself up from slipping into death by recalling her father’s wise words: “Focus on what is important …don’t give in to despair. Think of hopeful thoughts.”

Savanna possesses a lovable personality. She has a beauty about her and her mind constantly thinks about things. At their first encounter at the hospital in Phnom Penh, John Harrison, a freelance journalist, who follows Dr. Mark LaPorte to find stories there, shifts his eyes to Savanna. She’s nine months pregnant. “He studies her face. It appeals to him. What most catches his eye is her strikingly beautiful face which seems very sad. John makes his way around to interview her.” John rescues her and others when the hospital is bombed. He hesitantly delivers her baby as the only two doctors operate on seriously wounded patients.

John has great compassion for the mother and son, who have no one to turn to and nowhere else to go. They stay with John at his small apartment. Savanna and John eventually fall in love with each other. He marries her and adopts her son. When he finally convinces her to move to the United States with him, they become separated as the war between the US-backed Khmer Republic and the China-backed Khmer Rouge rages on. As John is airlifted with the seriously wounded Dr. Mark LaPorte to Thailand, Savanna and her son are captured by the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge agent deems her a traitor and sends her away as a slave laborer. “Sister, you are under arrest for setting your foot in the city before the revolution,” he charges. “Your action made you a traitor. From now on you are a prisoner. To pay for your crime of treason, you must leave your old life behind and work for Angka. If you disobey the order, you and your family will be killed. Now Angka has spoken. You may go with them.” It’s inhumane to be charged without evidence and due process. But soon Savanna learns this is just the beginning of her miseries.

While the general population accepts their fate by doing what the Khmer Rouge agents order them to do and dying at their hands, Savanna’s mind shifts to overdrive to find a way to rescue her son and find a better life for him. In the process of escaping the Khmer Rouge soldiers, she comes into contact with a tiger, a snake, an alligator, landmines, and a Thai soldier. While taking her son and an orphan whose brother is killed by a landmine to safety, she gets caught in a crossfire between the Khmer Rouge and Thai soldiers.

The author, Sotheary Ortego, does an excellent job of building up her story. She has done ample research to create the time, place, and events that happen in Cambodia. Every scene is intense. The conflicts feel real. Her prose is steady, detailed, and well constructed. Her characters—Savanna, Isan, John, and Dr. LaPorte—represent ordinary human beings who prove themselves extraordinary as they are thrown into a chaotic and destructive environment. The author creates this story and its characters to bring to light the plight of the Cambodian people and the bravery of those who have survived, and to pay tribute to those who have sacrificed themselves to save the powerless.

Through out the story, Savanna shows herself as a thinker and a survivor. However, will she survive the starvation, exhaustion, and bleeding bullet wounds as she carries her son and an orphan to the Cambodian-Thai border? Will she beat these last odds? Find out and take this Soulful Journey: Against All Odds with the talented Sotheary Ortego.

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