The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story by Thao Lam

A little girl and ants share a perilous journey escaping war-torn Vietnam.

The Paper Boat is a refugee story using Lam’s signature collage art. It’s a story without words, genre ‘wordless narrative’ that allows the child and parent to experience the menacing experience of escape. As the story begins a Vietnamese little girl saves ants from a sugar water trap using a chopstick. It puts a smile on her face, but through the pages her family wear only worry on their own. Looming outside the window of their home war-tanks can be seen with the infamous Communist star on it’s side. Troops are marching, there is a war raging outside and they must use all their money and jewelry to escape. They have a small boat, not much different than the one the little girl folds for the ants she has rescued, they too will set off on the waters and their own dangerous journey. The brutal sun, illness, exhaustion, threats from the sky like deadly seabirds who want to eat them, near drowning, vicious storms and scores of ants clustered together, much like the author’s own family went through.

Once they are safe and on land, have a place to stay in a city and food to eat there is another family member, a newborn as the mother in the story was pregnant on the journey. Now they are in a place where many cultures blend, as evidenced from the artwork and different styles of dress. They are alive, no longer living in fear, a fresh start from what they knew in Vietnam… building a different life. I found an interview with the author Thao Lam on YouTube about this beautiful book and her family’s experience. It’s well worth watching. She was only 2 at the time of their escape and as you can read in the Author’s Note at the end, she has no recollection of their journey, all her questions were met with silence about the unspeakable things that happened during the Vietnam war. Her mother, however, found a way to speak about seeking asylum to a young Thao by using insects and telling ‘a magical story about ants, the only invasion before the war’. This magic was a seed planted in Thao’s memory, giving birth to this tender book.

Ants rebuild, ants work together for survival, and they reflect everything Thao Lam’s family and refugees like themselves went through. Of course, a child’s understanding of what they are looking at is different dependent on age. Parents can explain what is happening, the art stands on it’s own, children generally love looking at art. The story is far more tender knowing the background. I always enjoy children’s books, both of my adult children are artists and we appreciate unique stories geared towards the young. It is a good way to teach our youth about other cultures and our own. Books are a bridge between us because stories, too, cross oceans. Lovely.

Out Now Published September 15, 2020

Owlkids Books

Misconduct of the Heart: A Novel by Cordelia Strube

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Nobody could hurt me because there was nothing left to destroy, which is why I relate to my traumatized son. In bed at night stuff comes back, just like it comes back to Pierce in his night visions- atrocities he can’t forget.

Stevie manages Chappy’s, a Corporate owned small chain restaurant placing ridiculous demands on the staff. The ‘restructuring’ of the kitchen is a mean feat for Stevie considering the non-English speaking workers, for staff who is now forced to ‘weigh’ the portions they serve, and cheap cuts that cause life threatening incidents like the accident that befalls one of Stevie’s cooks, Jesús. Her boss threatens her to ‘keep a closer eye on her staff’ or else he’ll tell Corporate, but how is she to make any of them listen when as a woman they just don’t seem to follow her instructions? With all these hassles and rules biting at her heels at work, her mission to keep the kitchen running and the staff on the job is like walking through fire. Home isn’t any better, her veteran son Pierce has come home from Afghanistan with more than a dusty cough. Suffering from undiagnosed PTSD, he assaults Stevie when his soldier’s hyper-vigilance kicks in and the body takes over.  During war, it was necessary to keep him alive, “back home he’s just nuts”.

Stevie is a recovering alcoholic who knows all too well about PTSD, but the sort of war she struggles with is homegrown and one that far too many females have the misfortune of being veterans of. Her strained relationship with her son began long before he left for service and has nothing to do with their difference of opinions about politics. Her past feels like a cancer, one that has poisoned the well of maternal tenderness. Giving birth to Pierce when she was still in high school, there are secrets she has had to maintain his entire life, painful truths that would devastate Pierce and change how he sees himself. Alcohol was her escape,  most of his childhood and upbringing was spent under the care of his grandparents Reggie and Peggy while Stevie spent years screwing up.

Reggie and Peggy are mentally declining in old age, lost in irrational thoughts. It would be funny if it wasn’t so damn sad, particularly when Peggy becomes jealous of the Filipino nurse Ducky, who is caring for frail Reggie. Mild Peggy, who spent the entirety of her marriage silent, bottling up any anger, jealousy and suspicion is now bursting with fury as her mind deteriorates. Stevie’s son isn’t the only one who goes on the attack, there is still fight left in the old gal who wants to keep that hussy away from her man, her daddy! Stevie couldn’t cope without Ducky’s nursing of her father, bad enough he and her mother may well burn down their home. Losing them to death, shameful as it is for Stevie to admit, would be a sweet relief from this madness. Her creative writing classes would be the perfect place for therapeutic release from the torment she has kept inside for so long, but that requires an honesty she isn’t ready for.

When Stevie takes an interest in fellow worker, Slovakian busboy Gyorgi, she may just make a connection and allow herself to be vulnerable. Which is a good thing as one day visiting her parents she finds “a little girl in purple sunglasses” on her parents front porch. A note informs Stevie the little girl is Trudy and may well be her own son’s child! Which means, she is a grandma! What will be born out of this new complication? Does Stevie have any love to give? Why can’t she feel the same ease Gyorgi has around children? What about Pierce, still as distant as the sun, where is he in all of this?

Stevie is bitter but enlightenment dawns on the reader as soon as the past unfolds. Her youth was stunted, it was easier to wear the mark of shame than seek help for what really happened. Life just gets away from some people, as the years collect. It was a good book but it’s hard to warm up to Stevie. She is prickly, but can you blame her? I just felt so terrible for her son, you can’t give a child his youth back anymore than she can reclaim her own innocence. This is a book about how the consequences of one moment can change the entire lives of one family, keeping them from making emotional ties. How trauma numbs a person inside and out; a parasite that feeds on a person’s soul. It shows how for many veterans war doesn’t end when they return home, and is a look into what can happen to those who fall through the cracks.

Publication Date: April 21, 2020

ECW Press

The Beekeeper of Aleppo: A Novel by Christy Lefteri

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I am scared of my wife’s eyes. She can’t see out and no one can see in. 

Beekeeper Nuri’s wife Afra (a talented artist once full of joy, laughter like gold) is disappearing to a dark place deep inside after horrific tragedy in Allepo obliterates every speck of life they created. It’s better not too see, there is safety in blindness when you live in a world brutal, hateful, ugly. This is war, it cares nothing for the land nor it’s people.  Things are getting more dangerous, if they stay they will die, how can Nuri get the blind Afra to see this? How can Nuri convince her that emotions must be corralled, logic must be the only guide for now? How can Afra leave this land, it holds the blood, the remains of every breath of life she existed for? Leave they must, but they will take the wasteland with them, inside their hearts. For Afra isn’t the only one whose mind has been ravaged by grief, Nuri may have his vision but he sees life as a version he can stomach, as a way to keep his feet moving so he can have a dream to hitch them to.

With his cousin Mustafa waiting for him in the UK, he will do everything it takes to begin anew, but first they must live as refugees where their very lives are dependent on trusting others, proving themselves as worthy of getting to Great Britain. They will meet others just as damaged as them along the way, with broken dreams and tortured memories. “These things are in the past. They will evaporate soon, like the river..”, but the past has it’s hooks inside Afra, and Nuri too. He must be strong, for Afra’s fragile state makes her vulnerable and her heart cannot take much more.  Afra doesn’t want the past to evaporate, she doesn’t want to see the future, for it died that day in Syria.

Nuri feels he has lost Afra, and loss seems to be all he knows anymore. Their world in ruins, through the journey they will inch closer together and drift apart, can they keep their love alive, is there any hope of beginning anew, will anything give Afra the desire to heal? Maybe Afra isn’t the one who needs healing. Would that they could be like Nuri’s beloved bees, that “small paradise among chaos”. There isn’t a sanctuary from the ravages of war, it’s impossible to return to what was, the only hope is in finding something new to live for, and with memory and love keeping what was from being erased.

So many of us are protected by the happenstance of our birth, and will never know about such wars, the all consuming terror, grief and destruction. We won’t have to alter our ways to fit into another country, and abandon our very culture, it’s traditions. Leave behind all the people who were a part of the landscape of our days and wonder if they are still alive. Hope for word from the very person you are running too, unsure if they are still waiting for you. We won’t be living our lives in between places, wishing for a place that is gone. If tragedy opens our doors, most of us won’t be forced to leave our homeland without family to comfort us, with time against us and the chance to grieve a luxury we can’t afford. We won’t have the barrier of language to scale. It is only through stories, films, and memoirs that we can even scratch the surface of such tragedy and yet still, I repeat, you will never know about such wars, the all consuming terror, grief and destruction. We have our miseries, of course we do, but there are not enough words to express the abyss of war. We can feel compassion, but I’m not sure we have the capacity to fully comprehend it as those who live through it have no choice to.

We sometimes overlook people living in different parts of the world, it’s easy enough to do when it isn’t affecting us. We forget to see them as human beings, we do it sometimes in our own families as well, it’s human nature. This story gives life through Nuri and Afra, something to connect with, a bridge of sorts, something beyond the news that we can just gap at in horror and turn the channel, go on our merry way. There are lives beyond the headlines, people with emotions and children, partners, battles to wage. How easy it is to forget.

There is hope and love between these pages, between Nuri and Afra, despite the fear he has of his wife’s eyes. Fear of what their loss has done to her, the state it’s left her in, fear she may never come back to him and be the woman he loved with an easy, deep affection. Yet, there is no room for surrender if you want to live, it takes strength beyond measure to survive. Survive they will, but with sacrifice of immense proportions. There is beauty in moments, but it is a heavy read.

Publication Date: August 27, 2019

Random House

Ballantine Books