- Raami: 7 year old Cambodian "princess" and narrator of the novel; wears a leg brace and special shoes because of polio.
- Papa ("Sisowath Ayuravann" or "Tiger Prince"): Raami's father, a Cambodian prince, a descendant of the early 20th Century King Sisowath; a poet.
- Mama (Aana): Raami's mother; born a working peasant, later educated and married to Ayuravann, a strong and independent woman.
- Radana: Raami's younger sister, a toddler.
- Tata: Papa and Big Uncle's older half-sister.
- Big Uncle (Aarun): Papa's younger brother, a physically large man with a boisterous personality.
- Auntie India: Big Uncle's wife
- The Twins: sons of Big Uncle and Auntie India
- Grandmother Queen: Papa and Big Uncle's Mother; Royalty.
- Om Bao, Old Boy, Milk Mother: servants of Raami's rich family
- The Old Sweeper: a last remaining peasant/worker from the temple at Prey Veng; recognizes Papa from his poetry and shares what happened there with Papa and Raami.
- Mr. Virak, his wife and baby: One of Papa's former poetry students; his family shares a room with Raami's family at the temple in Prey Veng.
Khmer Rouge ("Red Soldiers) is the name given to the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Cambodia, led by Pol Pot. On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge infiltrated Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Penh, and began what would become known as the Cambodian Genocide.
Under the pretense of security, equality, and socialist reformation, soldiers removed the wealthy, the educated, and the most civilized from their homes and began a relocation process. Acting in the name of "The Organization," most soldiers were very young and inexperienced. Several people were killed on the spot, without seeming rhyme or reason. Some for wearing glasses. Others for not acting quickly enough.
From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge enforced a series of social engineering practices that led to a famine, as well as several deaths due to treatable diseases such as malaria. Citizens were forced into physical labor while on the brink of starvation. Many were tortured and killed without reason.
Eventually Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge were attacked by Vietnam and forced Westward where their power was finally dissolved. Experts estimate the death toll to be close to 2.2 million people by the end of this Communist Regime, with at least half of these deaths due to mass executions, and the other half due to starvation and disease.
Summary Chapters 1-10
The story opens in the city of Phnom Phen, at the lavish home of narrator Raami, who is 5 years old. In her childlike voice and with her childlike impression of things, she describes the house, her large royal family, and the family servants whom she loves. Then one afternoon, a cook, Om Bao, goes into the market and does not return. Thus begins the chaos for Radaana's family.
They are forced by young revolutionary soldiers from their home into the streets. With everyone loaded into the car, along with several valuable possession, the family inches it's way with a crowd into an unknown future. Raami tries to block out the sights and sounds around her, which include the sound of bombs in the distance, gun shots, and seeing people die in the streets.
The family eventually meets up with Big Uncle and his wife and sons under a bridge, and they proceed to their country home in Kien Svay, on the outskirts of the city. Here they find refuge for a few days. Amid the chaos, Papa and Big Uncle can only speculate as to the severity of what is going on, and fail to create a secure plan for the family.
Within a few short days, they are forced from this home as well, with very little time to pack. Along with many others, the family walks through intense heat along the Mekong River for several hours, and is eventually forced onto a boat, crammed in like ducks and chickens. After a night of travel, all of the families get out along the shore and establish makeshift camps to cook, eat, and sleep. They are told they will be taken to yet another destination in the morning.
The family is once again loaded into a vehicle, this time a camion, and travels for several days until they reach Prey Veng, a province whose name means "endless forrest." Everyone is let out at the entrance to a temple, where a statue of a Walking Buddha has been overturned and lay on its side. This temple used to house several Buddhist monks and was a place of education for orphan boys.
The classrooms have been cleaned out, desks overturned and anything of value removed. The monks quarters, as well, are deserted and in disrepair. Families each stake a claim in one of several of the classrooms, and proceed to carry on with life as normally as possible. While at the temple, Papa is recognized by an Old Sweeper, a hunched servant of the monks. He recognizes Papa from a picture in a book of poetry. This Old Sweeper takes Papa and Raami to the abandoned houses of the monks, as well as the meditation pavilion. He explains that the soldiers arrived during the last harvest and said they had come to liberate them, to set the town free.
Eventually soldiers seized the abbot (the head monk) for "reeducation." The Sweeper explains through tears about the sound of the shot he remembers, and then the screams of the orphan boys. His story trails off.
Back at the camp, Raami's family tries to make the days pass as normally as possible. The women cook and keep things tidy. Raami's mother emerges as a leader among her sisters in law, making decisions on what and how much to eat, encouraging Tata to remove her nail polish so she can blend in, and reassuring the children that they will not starve. More refugees are brought to the camp, and among them is a man whom Papa recognizes from his days at the university.
Mr. Virak, his wife, and young baby are invited to inhabit a small closet off the room Raami's family is sleeping in. Meanwhile, Papa and Big Uncle are frequently seen taking walks and talking in low voices. Raami clearly understands very little about what is going on, but has full faith and trust that her father will protect the family, no matter what.
After several days, a group of men and women enter the temple and introduce themselves as the Kamaphibal. Dressed as peasants, this group begins a series of nightly talks, spouting lines and directives from the ideals of the Khmer Rouge. They begin taking down information about each family, often asking the children of the family for information. At one point, Raami is questioned and not knowing any better, tells the truth of her father's name and history.
Melanie on March 09, 2017: