An uneven but inspiring memoir of the Hmong author’s flight from post-Vietnam terror in Laos and Thailand to the United States.
Expelled from China centuries ago, the Hmong people lived in the mountains of Laos, where the CIA recruited them during the Vietnam War. When the Americans left, the Hmong fled to the jungles as their vindictive former enemies hunted and slaughtered them relentlessly. A fortunate few—Yang’s family included—escaped across the Mekong River into Thailand, after which, eventually, they found their way to America. The strongest parts of Yang’s memoir deal with these early years, most occurring before her birth in 1980 in a Thai refugee camp. Delivering her was her paternal grandmother, who emerges as a figure of towering importance to the author. The survival of the family was nearly miraculous; flood, disease, poverty, hunger, violence and despair all threatened them continually. In 1987 they finally arrived in Minnesota, where they faced new struggles. During the ensuing 20 years, the parents worked ferociously, the children succeeded academically (the author graduated from Carleton College) and the American Dream, in many tangible ways, was realized. As such, it’s unfortunate that the final two-thirds of the text is unbalanced and vitiated by cliché. The grandmother’s illness, death and funeral consume nearly 40 pages, testing the resolve of even the most lachrymose reader. The freshness of the language—so evident in early chapters—grows ever more stale, and skeptics may roll their eyes at accounts of ghosts, witches and shamanic miracles.
The prose needs serious tightening and burnishing, but Yang has performed an important service in bringing readers the stories of a people whose history has been shamefully neglected.