CAPTION: There are a series of drawings interspersed in the book that were drawn by the subject of the book, Vodka.
A young man’s heart-wrenching story of death, imprisonment, struggles, strength, perseverance and ultimate survival in war-torn Cambodia has inspired a new book that is being shared in Langley schools.
Mary-Jo Glen Ohl, a member of the Langley Writers’ Guild and long-time Cloverdale resident, describes herself as the conduit in sharing the compelling story of In Sam Oeun (nicknamed Vodka).
And copies of their self-published book, You Can Call Me Vodka: A Cambodian’s Story of Life After the Killing Fields, are being shared with H.D. Stafford Middle School, as well as a few Delta elementaries this month.
The book was seven months in the writing, but it was years in the making, said Ohl, who is a retired elementary school teacher librarian.
She stumbled into the author position by accident. It started with a Christmas party in 2013, when a group of friends talked of a river cruise down the Mekong River from Cambodia to Vietnam.
“Without a moment’s thought or hesitation, I said ‘I’m in!’ From the start it was meant to be,” Ohl recounted.
She and five other travellers made the excursion in July 2014, and that’s where she met the “well spoken, funny, and interesting” Vodka – a barman, coffee guy and waiter on the boat.
STORY CONTINUES BELOW
“We had several conversations while on the boat, one, about school made me cry. ‘You know, I only got to go to Grade 7,’ he said. As a teacher, that seemed so unfair. It made me think of a young Vietnamese boy, one of the boat people, I taught in the early ’80s,” Ohl shared.
On the last night of the cruise, while chatting again, he made a comment about his poor English.
She told him that if he was on Facebook, he should make Ohl a friend, and she offered to help him with this English.
“The conversation on Messenger began upon my return home and carries on to this day,” Ohl explained.
“At first we would chat long into the night, as he was up serving the early morning tea and coffee on the upper deck, and I was getting over jet lag. I had hip replacement surgery early in September, and had time on my hands. When I asked Vodka, one night about his family he replied, ‘Jo, would you like to hear my story?’ I told him I would be honoured to hear it. I cried several times through the telling, and had a moments pause when he asked me, one night ‘Jo, maybe you will write my story for me, and maybe one day I will be lucky enough to come to Canada and read it for myself’.”
But she thought about what she knew and said she could do that for him.
His biography has since been realized – complete with illustrations from Vodka.
“I did not know he could draw until he sent me a picture of a drawing around Christmas 2014. When I told him I needed the originals for the book he asked ‘But how?’ He had never used the postal system before. Since then, we have sent drawings and birthday greetings back and forth via the post.”
The 60-year-old author said she wrote this book for a younger audience, although the story is relevant and important for all ages.
“Written at a Grade 6 reading level, it is not just a book for kids,” she said. “My students at Richardson Elementary loved it, so have many of the seniors at Harrison Landing. I’ve mailed copies to Australia, New Zealand, Britain, and the U.S.A., as well as across Canada.”
People who have met Vodka on the river cruise are also “anxious” to read his story and happy to support the cause.
The book is selling for $20 (email firstname.lastname@example.org), with all proceeds going to the 33-year-old man.
“All the money made from the sales of this book is being banked for him. I hope that he will have the opportunity to come to Canada, improve his English, learn more about the hospitality industry or go to art school, and then be able to improve his life,” Ohl said.
She’s been making presentation to various schools, churches, seniors homes, and service groups, including a presentation to the Rotary Club Langley Sunrise.
After hearing her presentation, they bought a class set of books to donate.
Thirty copies of the book are being delivered to H.D. Stafford Middle School in mid-September, and Ohl hopes to have more copies in local schools soon.
CAPTION: Mary-Jo Glen Ohl penned this book between September 2015 and March 2016.
How to win:
One lucky Langley Advance readers will win a copy of Mary-Jo Glen Ohl’s book, You Can Call Me Vodka: A Cambodian’s Story of Life after the Killing Fields.
How do you win?
Click here, and email in your first and last name, your phone number, and the name of the community you call home, and tell us why you want to this book.
Do that, and you’re automatically entered into the draw to win the book.
Preference will be given to Langley residents. It is a random draw.
Entries must be received prior to 5 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 8, and the winner will be notified by email and/or phone.
No staff or family of the Langley Advance or Black Press are eligible. This giveaway is restricted to online participants, 19 years or older only.