I just finished reading The Dead Eye and The Deep Blue Sea by Vannak Anan Prum. In this illustrated novel, Prum tells the story of how he was taken from Cambodia and enslaved on a Thai fishing boat, then further enslaved on a plantation in Malaysia before finally being returned home.
Prum tells his story in concise paragraphs, each accompanied by an illustration. The book’s power is in its simplicity. We see clearly how one thing leads to the next, helping us understand how a healthy, newly married young man could unwittingly find himself a slave.
Prum grows up in a poor family in Cambodia, and flees his abusive father. At age 14 he is taken as a soldier. Later he wanders about searching for odd jobs, and finally marries. When his wife becomes pregnant he leaves her to look for work in a nearby village. He finds no jobs. But someone promises him work at a high wage drying fish in Thailand, so he agrees to go.
He is smuggled across the Thai border in the back of a pickup truck, and then loaded onto a fishing boat where he would labor under orders of a screaming captain wielding a whip made from the tail of a manta ray for the next four years without so much as setting foot on land.
He finally escapes by swimming to shore when the boat docks off the coats of Malaysia. He asks the first men he finds for help, but instead they sell him to a nearby plantation where he is forced to work again. This time his master is a corrupt police captain. Eventually he and a friend are badly injured and taken to a hospital, at which point he is jailed for being an illegal immigrant. Finally, with the help of an organization devoted to freeing slaves, he is returned home.
The book helps answer a question which I think we wonder but often goes unspoken- how in today’s world can people be people taken as slaves? Why do people allow themselves to be enslaved and not fight back, call police, or just run away? And why are slave owners not caught?
This book provides some answers. People who are penniless and alone, without families, community, or any other support, are the prey slave traders look for. When slaves are held on fishing boats that resupply from other ships and never come to shore they have no means of escape. And when local authorities are corrupt and the police themselves profit from the slave trade slaves have nowhere to turn.
This book is not just for adults, but with its concise text and illustrations it is also suitable for middle or high school age children. It reminds us to be thankful for what we have, and how with just a little bad luck everything, including our freedom, can be taken away.