On a snowy winter's night in Vermont, eleven-year-old Adam Fifield and his family awaited the arrival of his new foster brother, Soeuth, a fourteen-year-old refugee from the killing fields of Cambodia. Scrawny and terrified, Soeuth was mute for days, warily retreating into his room despite the Fifields' numerous attempts to make him feel welcome. But for Soeuth, whose young life had been plagued with fear and violence, it would be months before any place could feel like home.
In this rewarding memoir, Adam Fifield recalls the months and years that followed his first meeting with Soeuth. He describes the boy's amazing physical prowess, his sense of humor, and, juxtaposed against his own typically American coming of age, the horrific details of Soeuth's early years. But even more compelling is the story of Adam and his brother's journey to Cambodia to meet the family Soeuth once thought dead. What awaits them on the side of the globe will both reunite Soeuth with his lost family and cement the relationship he has forced with his new one.
About the Author
Adam Fifield is a native of Vermont and a graduate of Bates College. He is a freelance writer whose work has appeared regularly in the Village Voice and In These Times, among other publications. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Read an Excerpt
My new brother, Soeuth Saut, arrived on a snow-blurred night, a few weeks after the Christmas of 1984. We waited for him in our front room with soda, potato chips and a bright red-and-yellow banner, reading "WELCOME SOOTHE!" which my little brother, Dave, and I had drawn with magic markers. Mom had set our family photo album out on the coffee table, next to the soda and chips. Dave and I sat at opposite ends of the couch, Mom and Dad in chairs. No one said anything. Outside, the wind funneled steadily at the side of our house, and I could feel, on the back of my neck, cold spurts of breeze from gaps between the windowpanes Dad hadn't caulked up yet. Dad seemed to be thinking of other things; his hands were folded in his lap, his eyes aimed sideways at the door, his Adam's apple sharp and still. Dave examined his distorted reflection in a Christmas-tree ornament ball, while Frisbee, our dog, twitched in her sleep at Dave's feet. Mom let out sturdy, expectant sighs, hoping someone else would be the first to puncture the silence.
Mom had informed us, while pouring the chips into her wooden salad bowl, that our new brother had taken his father's first name as his last name because he didn't remember what his real last name was. When we had asked if he would take our last name, she had said that would be up to him. She had also assured us that he wouldn't be coming to us straight from the other side of the world. He had been living for a little while with another family here in town, who were strict Germans from whom he had run away. I hadn't asked Mom how she knew he wouldn't run away from us.
When tires finally crunched over the gravel inour driveway, Frisbee barked herself awake, Dave lifted his gaze lingeringly from the Christmas-tree ornament and I cracked my knuckles. Mom smiled at each of us individually, swiveling her head around the room.
A car door clicked quietly, carefully shut, and then another one was shut with equal care. Footsteps thudded slowly up the garage stairway outside. With almost choreographed precision, Dad stood up suddenly, plunged both hands deep into his change-heavy pockets and drew a long breath. Before he could exhale, there were three small, quick knocks at the door.
Dad opened the door and then unlatched the screen door and smiled his doctor smile out the doorway. "Come in," he said. He took a few steps back and jingled the change in his pockets. As if lured, somehow, by the jingling of the change, a small figure shuffled in, followed by a tall, dark-haired man. The man was smiling under his mustache, or trying to; our new brother was not. The boy was short and scrawny, with shiny, copper-colored skin. We could see only the bottom half of his face the hyphen of a little mouth, the slope of a nose because the shadow of a baseball-cap visor eclipsed his eyes and forehead. His big blue parka swallowed him and made his legs look like a bird's. His arms clutched his sides so that he seemed straitjacketed against us. Though his eyes were hidden his gaze was trained in the direction of the radiator, whose wheezing was the only sound in the room.
The man, whom we would come to know as Mr. Silverstein, held onto the straps of a rumpled duffel bag that dangled at his knees and contained all of this boy's possessions. After a moment, Mr. Silverstein gently set down the duffel bag, placed his hands on the boy's shoulders and said, "Well, here he is."
We all said, "Hi."
Dad rocked on his heels and raised his eyebrows, and Mom said, "We're very happy to have you in our home."
The boy said nothing.
After a few seconds swelled into an awkward silence, Mom stumbled over and hugged him. He hugged back weakly, hands hanging limp from reluctant arms. When she stepped away from him, he stood shivering, as if Mom were ice-cold to the touch. I could see his eyes now, which stared intently at the floor. I supposed he could peer right through it, burrowing through the wood, the pipes, the concrete, the rich layers of Champlain Valley loam and all that lay beneath them, until he was able to see clear to the other side of the world.
When he finally looked up, hard eyes fixed me from beneath the visor of his baseball cap. Eyes that tell you someone is bigger and older than the body he is trapped in. But then his eyes darted to the floor again. He stole a few more glances at Dave and me, but never once looked at Mom and Dad, even when they spoke to him.
The red-and-yellow welcome banner hung uselessly on the wall. He didn't look very welcome. He didn't cast one peek toward our family photo album. He didn't eat any chips.
We ushered him through the house, showed him his room, and when we came back downstairs, Mom pointed out some board games, probably Monopoly and Scrabble, that we had set out on the dining room table. His eyes scanned the games and then flew up to Mr. Silverstein for an explanation, and Mr. Silverstein smiled and squeezed his shoulder. It was only later I would understand that Mr. Silverstein, a lanky Jewish man with a ponytail, was one of the few adults in the world who hadn't betrayed or abandoned him in some way. At that moment he was this boy's only connection to the world...
What People are Saying About This
I found Adam Fifield's memoir of his adoptive Cambodian brother, Soeuth, both riveting as a narrative and deeply affecting. A Blessing over ashes is wonderfully fresh, told with grace and simplicity, and it takes the reader on a strange and unlikely journey that is at the same time literal and spiritual. Crossing decades and national borders with unusual ease, this memoir revisits one of the bleakest moments in contemporary history - The Killing Fields of Cambodia - but ultimately lifts and soothes, binding writer and reader as Fifield meditates on brotherhood, family, and the role to survive.
Jay Parini, author of Benjamin's Crossing and Robert Frost: A Life
A Blessing Over Ashes is an admirably honest account of the intersection of family and culture. Its young author could easily have surrendered to sentimentality but instead he has summoned the strength to tell a story that is unflinching without ever being ungenerous.
Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
A Blessing Over Ashes travels the distance from the most awful part of human nature to the most gallant. And that's an odyssey no reader will ever forget.
(Samuel G. Freedman, author of Small Victories)