CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 11 . . . . November 11, 2011
Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War.
Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch.
Toronto, ON: Pajama Press, 2011.
107 pp., pbk., $12.95.
Son Thi Anh, Tuyet-Juvenile literature.
Orphans-Vietnam-Ho Chi Minh City-Biography-Juvenile literature.
Orphanages-Vietnam-Ho Chi Minh City-Juvenile literature.
Vietnam War, 1961-1975-Children-Biography-Juvenile literature.
Airlift, Military-Vietnam-History-20th century-Juvenile literature.
Vietnam War, 1961-1975-Participation, Canadian-Juvenile literature.
Vietnamese Canadians-Biography-Juvenile literature.
Grades 3-7 / Ages 8-12.
Review by Jocelyn Reekie.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
Tuyet could not remember ever seeing the sky above her head.
When she heard the whop-whop-whop-whop of helicopters, Tuyet would hide. She couldn’t remember exactly what it was that she was afraid of, but when she put her fingers to her scalp, she could feel dents. She had a large burn scar on her back and another long scar under her chin. She couldn’t remember when the injuries happened, but it must have been before the orphanage.
Tuyet remembered the big door opening and American soldiers coming in with stuffed toys, spinning tops, and hard candy. The other children would crowd around the men, competing for attention and gifts. But Tuyet would hide. …
Fans of Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch’s books will know her most recurring themes are the effects of war on children and her young protagonists’ struggles to find family and home in the wake of it. In her first nonfiction YA title, Skrypuch explores these areas of human ferocity and need once again, but this time readers experience the story through the eyes of Son Thi Anh Tuyet, the girl who actually lived it.
Rather than using the first-person point of view that is common to memoir, Skypuch has settled on a third-person narrative to tell Tuyet’s story. Here, the choice serves to echo some of the isolation and estrangement Tuyet feels, while the real and telling details obtained by the close collaboration between the author and the now-adult Tuyet pull the reader into the emotional upheaval the child Tuyet has to deal with every day.
It is 1975, and Tuyet is eight-years-old. She is housed in an orphanage in Saigon, South Vietnam. She can’t recall a time before she lived there. Inside the orphanage, she can hear helicopters and airplanes, and bombs going off. But she can’t see them because the children are not allowed to go outside, ever. Outside, the Vietnam War is going on.
Then, in April, Saigon falls to the Viet Cong, and Tuyet is thrust headlong into a journey she does not understand and of which she is even more afraid than she had been of the war and her life in the orphanage.
In the world the eight-year-old knows, only perfect children are adopted or kept alive. Tuyet is imperfect. Polio has ruined her left leg and foot. So, she has been vigilant to find ways to make herself useful enough that the nuns who run the orphanage have let her stay and have given her food. But now she is removed from the relative safety of the system she has so carefully worked out. She does not know where she’s going, or why, or what will happen when she gets there.
On each leg of the long and exhausting journey, there are new challenges and terrors Tuyet must overcome. Young readers will find themselves riding an emotional roller coaster with her as she is taken away by strangers who speak a language unintelligible to her and put aboard a van, and then an airplane filled with screaming babies. Readers will learn what she endures as she loses everything she knows, or attaches to, including the only two friends she has ever had. Nor does her ordeal end when the airplane touches down in a foreign land called Canada. But along the way, her courage and resourcefulness allow her, and her readers, to carry on.
Overall, the 24 black and white illustrations serve to increase readers’ understanding of Tuyet’s journey as she experienced it. The tanks (ill. 2 1) and the photos of the babies (ill. 3 1) and the children (ill. 4 1) inside the plane give readers a clear sense of urgency and exhausting nature of the airlift rescue scheme, while photos of Tuyet, including her arrival in Toronto (ill. 4 4), and the Morris family photo (ill. 6 2) clearly show the strain and sorrow suffered by the little girl and her clinging to the man she is still afraid might send her back to her war torn country. In the end, readers also clearly see a transformation taking place (ill. 10 1 with Linh and ill. 10 2).
Some of the illustrations caused a disruption in the flow of Tuyet’s story and might have been better placed in the endnotes. Examples are: the pilot (ill. 4 3), which shows a calm looking man readers have not gotten to know, and the care workers with other children (5 1), which lifts readers out of Tuyet’s story.
Documents, such as the birth certificate (1 1), and the adoption order (6 1), which, as it’s placed, gives away the future and reduces the tension the author is trying hard to maintain, might also be better in the endnotes.
The author’s endnotes serve to clarify another sticking point for this reader, which was that apparently neither the nuns at the orphanage nor any of the adults Tuyet met during the journey who spoke her language (and there were some) took time to sit down with the terrified girl and explain what was happening. But there is a credible explanation for that blank spot. The historical note brings readers up-to-date and lays the facts of why Tuyet’s journey was so necessary on the line.
Last Airlift is the story of an heroic deed, of one young girl’s courage and resourcefulness when she most needs it, and of the ending she could not foresee.
Jocelyn Reekie is a writer, editor and publisher in Campbell River, BC.
on this title or this review, send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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