A bleak and terrible story of the Vietnamese boat people--from UN files--recounted without resonance. In September 1979, 14-year-old Hue Hue and her gentle older brother ""Dung, separated willy-nilly from their parents, boarded a leaky boat navigated by a man who knew nothing of the sea; eventually it ran aground, its engine failing, on a coral reef 600 miles from Malaysia. There, the 50 refugees transferred to a derelict, abandoned fishing vessel, ""the white ship,"" where dysentery, near-starvation, and despair decimated the weak and the strong. A ship's ladder (leading to a ""blue-green sea breaking white on a pink coral strand"") was the only access to the meager supply of shellfish, but some were unable to climb back and died on the beach. Some chose to end their lives by throwing themselves into the sea or down 30 ft. to the ship's hold. When quiet Trung finally killed himself, Hue Hue determined to live so she could pray for him. Back in Vietnam, Hue Hue's distraught father, hard-working watch-repairer Luong Trinh, took advantage of the ""assisted"" escape operation for ethnic Chinese (sanctioned extortion) and the family reached Malaysian refuge. On the white ship there were now three alive--Hue Hue and two little boys, living on dried seagull meat (she had become an accomplished hunter); then she was alone. She was rescued in January 1979 and ultimately reunited with her family in Australia. One only wishes that the tragedy of the boat people--which Townsend (The Last Emperor, Time and Chance) rightly bewails--could have been honored with less sloganeering and less hackneyed prose.