Does one ever truly recover from a wartime experience? It’s a question that underlines many of the passages in Eloise Charet-Calles’ newly published memoir, Never Without Our Children (Editions Bambou 2015). As a 23-year-old young woman, Eloise and her sister Anna—then only 20—answered the call for help put out by Naomi Bronstein’s Montreal-based Families for Children charity. Leaving their home in rural Quebec, they travelled to Cambodia to care for war orphans being created by conflict with the Khmer Rouge. The book’s title derives from the answer she and her sister gave Cambodian and Canadian authorities when Phnom Penh fell to Khmer forces in 1975. All foreign nationals were issued evacuation notices but that didn’t include the 50 or so orphans Anna and Eloise had cared for in their orphanage, dubbed Canada House. The two young women simply refused to leave unless a way could be found to take the orphans with them. At the time, they were the subject of international news stories, including one by CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite. For their selfless service they should long ago have received the Order of Canada, in my view. But knowing Eloise as I do, she’d probably just shrug and say what matters is our actions, not our awards.
“We were so innocent,” said Eloise at her book launch in New Denver’s Bosun Hall. “It was like a form of initiation to be plunged into the war and have to figure a way to get out of there,” she said. “Like any initiation, you’re never sure if you’ll come through unscathed.”
As Jan McMurray writes in the September 23 Valley Voice, “You might say that they came through unscathed, but certainly not unchanged.” At the launch Eloise spoke of how proud she was to be part of the generation that rose en masse against the Vietnam War. “It was the very first time in history that young people stood up to say, ‘No more war.’” No amount of right-wing spin or historical revisionism can take that away from them.
In her Prologue, the lifelong impact of her Cambodian experience is driven home. “There are some divine moments when we are called to some form of greater destiny. Like an initiation, you aren’t sure if you’ll come through unscathed but you do know that if you accept it, you’ll never be the same. …You never fully recover from war, or the inexplicable mystery of why humans conquer, dominate or murder other humans. You can never forget the anguish and sorrow on peoples’ faces; the image of thousands of families, pushing their meagre possessions, swelling the roads leading to a capital collapsing in front of them—people who have already lost everything and all that remains is their life or what is left of it; their family or what is left of it; their faith in humanity or what is left of it.” Amen. It’s a commentary that’s all the more poignant now that we have a brand new refugee crisis brewing with the Syrians washing up—dead or alive—on Mediterranean beaches.
As Eloise notes, the international press in 1975 dubbed Canada House “An isle of love amidst a sea of despair.” It was literally that, as families fleeing the murderous rage of the Khmer Rouge, who were wiping out entire villages, dropped babies into the sisters’ arms on their way out of the country, knowing they would be safe. “Here, we created a sense of home and family. We nurtured children who witnessed the worst trauma imaginable for a child. …Anna and I ignored several successive evacuation notices and refused to leave without our children. Our little orphanage became one of the last lifeboats to escape; it was uncertain that we could even make it. The only country willing to receive 55 orphans was Vietnam and once we arrived there, we were immediately plunged into another war in which two-thirds of the country collapsed to the invading North Vietnamese Army in just three weeks.” As a funny aside, Eloise told the audience in New Denver that one journalist had come looking for the Catholic orphanage in Phnom Penh, since he’d heard it was run by nuns (‘sisters’). Obtaining exit visas for all these children took special favours from big-hearted people in both the Cambodian government and Canadian embassy. Big-hearted families in Canada and Europe then adopted the orphans.
In addition to recent reunions with the orphans and their families now living in Canada, one of the emotional rewards of writing the book came about unexpectedly. When a recent Vancouver Sun article reported on the story, Eloise received a phone call from Cliff Zacharias, the pilot who flew the Hercules aircraft that got them from Phnom Penh to Saigon. He told her that the evacuation was the high point of his entire career as a pilot. Only weeks later Saigon would fall the North Vietnamese, leading to panicked scenes like the famous one we’ve all seen of Vietnamese hanging off American helicopters on the roof of the American embassy.
Although Eloise is a first-time author with this book, she has a natural penchant as a storyteller that was evident even in the first rough draft. Like any good storyteller, she knows how to balance tragedy with comedy, and there are many light touches in the book that leave the reader laughing out loud. For example, the time at the orphanage when Anna fell asleep sunbathing on the roof and the wind blew open her shirt while she slept, making her appear topless. Several planes were seen buzzing the building at low altitudes for a closer look. As any siblings do, the sisters bickered with one another, sometimes fought in earnest and other times just fought playfully to relieve the tension. Eloise has a good eye for picking out these moments at just the right point in the narrative, and a good ear for the dialogue she recalls.
This is a book that is the product of decades of turning over the experience in memory long before the first words were set to paper. More than that, when it came time for Eloise to start writing, the book became the adoptive child of many in the New Denver community. Judy Maltz provided networking support. I was one of the first to see the early drafts and offer editorial suggestions. I urged her to write an introductory chapter. Surely there must have been something about growing up in a large Quebecois family that motivated these two sisters to undertake such a dangerous mission of mercy on the other side of the world. I felt readers needed to understand where this motivation came from.
“Growing up in a family of ten children taught us about sharing and getting along,” Charet writes in the Prologue. “Our parents were philosophers and dreamers and some of our best family moments were discussions about social justice around the kitchen table. Quebec was in the midst of a cultural revolution with our French-speaking people demanding equal rights to language and culture, not to mention our Métis, Inuit and Indians who suffered tremendous injustice and genocide.”
As more drafts came, I committed to reading and commenting on them. Anne Champagne, copy editor extraordinaire, edited every draft for grammar, spelling, punctuation and accuracy. And when the time came for the English edition to be printed, she set aside a busy work schedule to get the editing done by deadline—all in about a week. Many others in the village provided moral support. The Slocan Lake Gallery Society sponsored the launch. As Eloise said in her opening comments the evening of September 11, “They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well in this case it took a village to create this book.”
I was privileged to be asked by Eloise to offer a brief introduction at the launch. I alluded to the fact that any book is a major accomplishment, the result of years of thought and labour. The analogy of bringing to birth in the context of this book was obvious, only instead of a nine-month gestation, hers was something like nine years. My own book was the result of a seven-year project. But Eloise and I share a deeper link as authors. My own book, Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest, tells another story of social injustice to children. In it, I discuss the inter-generational resonances of past trauma—a principle now well established by the science of epigenetics. Nothing is ever just ‘in the past,’ after all. As one nurse in Never Without Our Children explained to the Charet sisters: “There is a lot more psychological trauma to war than we realize. It doesn’t go away when you go home to peace and family. Sometimes it haunts you more because now you have time to think about it; before that you were in survival mode with no time to dwell on anything but staying alive.”
PURCHASE Never Without Our Children at the Editions Bambou website or Amazon. http://www.editionsbambou.com