Book Review: Palawan Story
A novel by Caroline Vu
Published by Deux Voiliers Publishing
I am eight years old and hiding behind a chair in our living room. My little brother and sister are hiding under a table. We jump out and shoot our toy guns towards a young man coming down the stairs. “Bang, bang! Got you, Chuck! You want to play with us?” We smile the smiles of young children.
Chuck, our renter and a university student, shakes his head. “No, don’t point your guns at me. I don’t believe in that.” He explains himself, why he eats only beans and peanut butter. He is a conscientious objector; he is avoiding the Vietnam War draft by keeping his weight low; he doesn’t want to kill anyone.
I am reading Caroline Vu’s novel, Palawan Story, which starts with a Vietnamese girl named Kim watching desperate people rushing for the last American helicopter out of Saigon. Kim watches this on TV and wonders if the fleeing hunchback is her father. He pushes aside an old woman, throws away his suitcase, and hangs onto the helicopter ledge, dangling in the air.
With this striking beginning, the reader holds hands with the girl Kim and lives for a while under the Communist regime, with all its changes and restrictions and disappearing neighbors. Then one night Kim is guided by her mother to a leper colony and must depart without her mother on a boat for freedom. But afterward she cannot remember what happens on the boat. The rest of the book tells of her time in a refugee camp on the island of Palawan, and shared stories with other refugees—including the Communist bombing of Hue which Kim and her family lived through and the American military’s massacre at My Lai. We see Kim’s adoption into an American family by a false identity, her college years and first love, and her quest for the truth of that time on the boat, of Vietnam, the war, missing peoples, her family and herself.
As I turn the pages, I remember the Vietnam War years myself. I remember our gentle renter Chuck, I remember praying for peace at church, I remember praying for a girl’s brother—who was Missing In Action, and I remember the horrifying pictures from Life magazine of a little girl burning, a monk burning.
I read this book with a foreboding in my heart. A realization. That many of us have forgotten the past. Our own past. The past of others.
It is important that we remember.
As the adult Kim in Palawan Story puts it, “Without people’s memories, who will make sense of history?”
Caroline Vu’s Palawan Story is an excellent work, for many reasons.
Well written and engaging, with strong characters and a fluid narrative, the novel shows how refugees live, their humanity, their hardship, their loss, their grief, their growth. In this crowded world that is debating the fate of immigrants–of people, this book is very important. This is a novel that will help you remember. This book will help you hope.
Caroline Vu was awarded the Canadian Authors’ Association Fred Kerner Literary Award in June 2016.