In 1978, Chinese-Vietnamese Mai’s previously wealthy family has sent her away as a first step in getting the whole family to the safety of America.
She is accompanied by Uncle Hiep, who at 16 is only two years older than she is. The two survive a harrowing boat journey and fetch up on a small island called Pulau Tenga, off the coast of Malaysia, where Small Auntie, Mai’s mother’s sister-in-law, is to take care of them. Small Auntie and her family have been stranded there since their boat died a year ago. She can help them navigate this crowded and somewhat harsh terrain and work with the Red Cross to contact an uncle living in Chicago. But Small Auntie believes that the two have brought wealth with them, and her greed soon finds them ostracized and seeking help from other young people on their own. Based on a friend’s experiences, Zeiss’ first novel lacks the immediacy of an actual memoir and suffers from unevenness of tone. At times, it seems that Mai can’t distinguish between large and small crises, which undercuts her otherwise real trauma. At other times, the challenges she faces are grievous and even deadly.
Nevertheless, given the dearth of material about the exodus of the families that supported democracy in Vietnam, this novel has value in helping to bring home to modern readers the great costs they suffered. (Historical fiction. 12-16)