The Flamboya Tree: Memories of a Mother’s Wartime Courage by Clara Olink Kelly
This month I’ve already featured one Holocaust memoir where a mother struggles to keep her child alive (A Jump for Life), so I briefly hesitated about featuring this book, as it’s also about a mother’s efforts to keep her children alive during World War Two.
It’s just so good that I can’t skip it, despite the similarities. The author was only four when she and her mother and younger brothers were taken to an internment camp in Java. I look at my children – currently four and two – and try to imagine adding a newborn to the mix and then trying to survive in that sort of situation, after my husband was taken away as a forced laborer. It’s just … impossible to truly imagine it.
The account is simply so astonishing, the author’s tribute to her mother’s resiliency and strength is touching and beautiful.
Hard to read at times, but oh so worth it.
“It is a well-known fact that war, any war, is senseless and degrading. When innocent people are brought into that war because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, it becomes incomprehensible. Java, 1942, was such a place and time, and we were those innocent people.”
Fifty years after the end of World War II, Clara Olink Kelly sat down to write a memoir that is both a fierce and enduring testament to a mother’s courage and a poignant record of an often overlooked chapter of the war.
As the fighting in the Pacific spread, four-year-old Clara Olink and her family found their tranquil, pampered lives on the beautiful island of Java torn apart by the invasion of Japanese troops. Clara’s father was taken away, forced to work on the Burma railroad. For Clara, her mother, and her two brothers, the younger one only six weeks old, an insistent knock on the door ended all hope of escaping internment in a concentration camp. For nearly four years, they endured starvation, filth-ridden living conditions, sickness, and the danger of violence from their prison guards. Clara credits her mother with their survival: Even in the most perilous of situations, Clara’s mother never compromised her beliefs, never admitted defeat, and never lost her courage. Her resilience sustained her three children through their frightening years in the camp.
Told through the eyes of a young Clara, who was eight at the end of her family’s ordeal, The Flamboya Tree portrays her mother’s tenacity, the power of hope and humor, and the buoyancy of a child’s spirit. A painting of a flamboya tree—a treasured possession of the family’s former life—miraculously survived the surprise searches by the often brutal Japanese soldiers and every last-minute flight. Just as her mother carried this painting through the years of imprisonment and the life that followed, so Clara carries her mother’s unvanquished spirit through all of her experiences and into the reader’s heart.
For another account of surviving in the Japanese internment camps, check out We Band of Angels, one of the books I featured in last years series. Evidence Not Seen: A Woman’s Miraculous Faith in the Jungles of World War II is another amazing account with a lot of similarities to The Flamboya Tree, although the faith elements in it are a lot more prominent.
To see all the books featured in 31 Days of Great Nonfiction, go to the series page.
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