SENSING THE ENEMY: An American Woman Among the Boat People of Vietnam by Lady Borton

SENSING THE ENEMY: An American Woman Among the Boat People of Vietnam

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Mementos of a Vietnamese refugee camp in Malaysia a few years back. In 1980, Borton left her ""Appalachian Ohio"" farm and an unfinished novel about her Vietnam-War experiences, for six months as health director of the camp on Bidong Island. She had a Quaker connection; whether she had any specialized training, she doesn't say. But this is an impressionistic collage, in any case, not reportage: though we hear that there were ten administrative units, each with a foreign head and a Vietnamese leader, we never learn who was responsible overall or how, indeed, the setup operated. We never really learn how well or poorly it operated. Chiefly, there are vignettes illustrating how it felt to Borton to be there--and the most vivid descriptions are of the stench, the rats, the crush of people and want of solitude. Not because Borton didn't care about the people; rather, what she relates either lacks import. . . or strains for unearned import. A little girl is injured in a chance accident; hearing her scream, Borton thinks back to a napalmed child in Quang Nai: ""I tightened my grip on the window bars; I twisted the ball of my foot, grinding it into the earth."" A hospital patient climbs up on the roof, then insists he wants to go to China (rather than the US); after he's bundled off, Borton reads that one refugee from that batch of over 40,000 had gone to China--end of story. Borton feels for the refugees; she feels for the retarded children whose school bus she drove in Ohio, and to whom she also flashes back. When she returns to Ohio, she'll try to earn as little money as possible, so as not to pay taxes-for-war. None of this coalesces, however, and at its least attractive it's inescapably self-dramatizing.

Pub Date: April 20th, 1984
Publisher: Dial/Doubleday