A family’s resiliency inspite of the realities of war


A Path of Stars
A Path of Stars

A Path of Stars
By Anne Sibley O’Brien (Watertown, Mass.: Charlesbridge Publishing, 2012, $15.95, 40 pp., hardcover)

This is my first experience with Cambodian American fiction. Anne Sibley O’Brien undertakes a big challenge as she tries to write and illustrate from a Cambodian immigrant viewpoint.

The role of the Maine Humanities Council in sponsoring this book and others about Maine’s refugee communities to preserve their heritage is intriguing. I learned that there are 2,500 Cambodians living in Maine.

Our storyteller in “A Path of Stars” is young Dara, who appears to be about 7 or 8 years old. Her name means “star.” She describes her relationship with her grandmother, Lok Yeay. Dara relishes her grandmother’s stories of life in Cambodia as they cook dinner together. Lok Yeay tells of sharing a mango with her brother, smelling the flowers, and watching the stars that glowed like fireflies.

Sometimes Lok Yeay talks about escaping from the soldiers who killed most of her family members, hiding in the jungle by day and walking by starlight to reach the border of Thailand. Once in the safety of a noisy, crowded refugee camp, Lok Yeay grew vegetables, but missed the flowers. Lok Yeay promises to take Dara to Cambodia one day to meet her great uncle Lok Ta, who is grandmother’s brother.

One day there is a call from Cambodia. “All the light went out of Lok Yeay’s eyes. She slipped like a whisper into her bed. She wouldn’t speak, and she wouldn’t get up… The house is silent now. The kitchen is empty and quiet and dark.”

What should Dara do? She looks up at the night sky, prays, and decides to pick a rose and a tomato from the garden for her grandmother. She puts them on a tray with a photo of her deceased great uncle and takes them to Lok Yeay’s bedside. Slowly her grandmother responds to Dara’s request that they pray together for Lok Ta. Drawn from her bed to put Lok Ta’s photo on the home shrine in the living room, Lok Yeay lights the incense, and the family prays that Lok Ta will find peace.

Afterward, Dara and Lok Yeay share the tomato, and Dara takes over her grandmother’s usual role as storyteller, imagining a future trip to Cambodia where they will visit relatives, eat mangoes, and “the air will smell of flowers.” Grandmother responds, stroking Dara’s cheek, calling her “My star.”

O’Brien’s illustrations are oil paint and oil crayon. She uses vivid colors for all her subjects except the page describing the war.

“A Path of Stars” tackles very difficult subject matter: grief, war, death, survival and displacement. The strength of the ties between grandmother and granddaughter hopefully will enable even the young reader to focus on Lok Yeay’s resilience and Dara’s ability to look toward a brighter future. The author handles the discussion of war with a skillful touch: truth about the loss of lives, but little frightening detail.

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