(photo and description from Goodreads)
No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.
For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, the warmth of her friends close by… and the beauty of her very own papaya tree.
But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, Hà discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food, the strange shape of its landscape… and the strength of her very own family.
This is the moving story of one girl’s year of change, dreams, grief, and healing as she journeys from one country to another, one life to the next.
When I saw this book was written as a series of poems, I thought “eh,” because I didn’t know how well that would work. I’m glad I ignored myself because it was a beautiful, moving story. Through snippets, I got to know Hà, her mother and her older brothers.
I liked that she was headstrong and a little impulsive – the book begins with Vietnamese New Year and her personality really shines through in this passage (pages 2-3):
But last night I pouted
when Mother insisted
one of my brothers
must rise first
to bless our house
because only male feet
can bring luck.
An old, angry knot
Expanded in my throat.
to wake before dawn
and tap my big toe
to the tile floor
Hà never comes right out and says how bad things are, mostly because she’s not old enough to truly understand, but there are little details sprinkled throughout, especially this passage on page 47:
I start to chop off
a potato’s end
as wide as
then decide to slice off
only a sliver.
I am proud
of my ability
until I see
You deserve to grow up
where you don’t worry about
saving half a bite
of sweet potato.
The book is split into sections:
Part 1: Saigon
It shows the day-to-day and deteriorating conditions, as well as the confusion of planning to escape.
Part 2: At Sea
While the journey was rough on all of them, I think it was especially on Hà’s brother, Khôi, who was very sensitive. There’s something he does, involving what he brought from home, that’s heartbreaking.
Part 3: Alabama
Hà’s assumptions about Americans made me smile, especially the idea that the men were all cowboys. There’s a great scene on pages 131-134 where she’s trying to ask her family’s sponsor if she can ride the horse she assumes he owns.
Part 4: From Now On
In some ways, this was the most moving part because the family is finally accepting that this is now their life. They begin to move on and make plans.
Definitely, definitely check this book out – it’s a quick read, packed with so much emotion.