In the 2016 picture book Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy’s Story of Survival, authors Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch and Tuan Ho tell the story of six-year-old Tuan, who escaped from Vietnam with his mother and two sisters in 1981. Tuan’s youngest sister, Van, and their grandmother were left behind. In the early–middle grade non-fiction book Too Young to Escape Skrypuch answers the question so many of her readers have asked her: “What happened to the youngest Ho child?”
Skrypuch and the now-adult Van Ho collaborate on this account of Van’s life from the morning she woke to find her mother and siblings gone to when, four years later, she was reunited with her family in Toronto. The story is told from Van’s childhood perspective, with age-appropriate vocabulary and emotional heft. But readers of all ages will be immediately drawn to the simple, direct narration. “Right then, I longed to yell and scream and cry,” Van says when she’s told by Bag Ngoai (her grandmother) that her family has fled the country without her. “But I took a deep breath to calm myself. I could not show what I felt. Instead, I stomped up the stairs to begin my afternoon chores. I refused to believe her.”
Van and her grandmother are the unwanted dependents of Van’s aunt and uncle, who have lost their business. Van and Bag Ngoai are treated like servants, performing endless household tasks. On occasion, Van’s aunt slaps her for not working fast enough. When feelings of abandonment wash over her, Van must put them aside, go to school, and do her chores – picking up the jobs that her mother, sisters, and brother left behind.
Most of Too Young to Escape focuses on Van’s coping mechanisms over the next four years, bonding with her grandmother and a girl from school who lives in a similar situation. And she sometimes grapples with a confusing political reality: “Our teachers told us [Ho Chi Minh] was our great leader. But at home, nobody said anything nice about him. I knew from whispers between Ma and Ba Ngoai that Ho Chi Minh was the reason we lost our home … But when I looked up at his picture, I thought his eyes seemed kind.”
When word comes from Van’s mother that they are safe in Canada and are sending for her, Van doesn’t want to go. “My eyes filled with tears. My parents and siblings had faded in my memory. They didn’t seem like real people anymore, just pictures on paper.” Here, and throughout the book, the authors eschew sentimentality and sensationalism, creating a straightforward autobiography that is truthful about resilience and the often unpredictable ways children act and react.
A Grain of Rice also tells the story of a family attempting to leave Vietnam after the war. Loosely based on the experience of author Nhung N. Tran-Davies and her family – who escaped from Vietnam in the late 1970s – the novel is a fictional account that aims to give readers a much fuller picture of the time, bringing in the region’s political history, religious themes and superstitions, and a graphic portrayal of the unrelenting horrors endured by refugees who fled by boat.
The story opens in 1978 as 13-year-old Yen, her mother, and two younger siblings are caught in a storm and flash flood – yet another devastation in an already difficult existence: “Though the soldiers had laid down their bullets and bombs three years ago … we weren’t any more free or safe,” says Yen. “The northern soldiers had taken everything from us. … With the flood, who knew if we would get any rations.”
Yen comes across as angry yet deeply empathetic. She doesn’t understand why her mother is still praying to the Buddhist gods who have forsaken them or how she’s so understanding of prosperous relatives who are unwilling to help. But Yen also sees her single mother caring for their neighbours, defying the soldiers to their faces, and eventually leading her children out of the country. This book is a love letter to an indefatigable maternal figure who provided a strong example to her daughter. Yen, too, takes notice of others’ misfortune and is quick to give her own food to those more in need. In these characters’ lives, “a grain of rice means everything.”
The climax takes place in a rickety wooden fishing vessel, filled with hundreds of refugees, bound for Malaysia. When the engine dies, the passengers spend days at sea. Life below deck is wretched, and there are times when the reader has to wonder how much can these people suffer. The family’s money is stolen, they are shot at, and there are days of vomit, hunger, and dehydration. And then a pirate attack.
While certainly a suspenseful action story, A Grain of Rice is a sobering read, which gives insight into the events that still haunt Canada’s Vietnamese population – and the struggles of refugees past and present.