Friday, June 18, 2010
Review: Escaping the Tiger by Laura Manivong
In 1982, 12-year-old Vonlai Sirivong and his family risk their lives and escape across the river from Communist-controlled Laos to Thailand. They left behind what little the Communists had not taken from them—but life in Na Pho refugee camp doesn’t seem much better. Vonlai attends school, plays soccer, watches his older sister and parents go through mood swings, and endures abuse at the hands of the guards, struggling to hold onto his dream of being an architect in America, where buildings touch the sky and crazy inventions such as a machine that automatically washes dishes exist. Will Vonlai ever see his dreams come true, or will he spend the rest of his life in the refugee camp, as he fears every day?
Told in unassuming third-person narrative, ESCAPING THE TIGER sheds a necessary light on a painful part of history: the Lao refugees’ experience. While the writing is not quite spectacular, first-time author Laura Manivong just might move you to tears, as she did me.
ESCAPING THE TIGER is a slow close-up on the characters’ emotions as they go through their refugee experience. That means that if you’re looking for a fast-paced, plot-driven story, you won’t find it here. Vonlai’s time in the refugee camp is full of unending tension, impatience, and doubt. The refugees go through what most of us can never imagine: unhygienic conditions, extreme lack of privacy, and doubt as to whether everything you did prior to the Communist takeover was worth anything at all. But in the midst of all this are sparks of humanity that shine like relieving fireflies in the darkness: Vonlai’s banter with his friend stands out to me here. This book does something extremely difficult by balancing the inhumanity of the Na Pho experience with the little, warm things about people that keep our spirits alive even in the lowest of times.
The characters did feel a bit stiff at times, though, for me. I often couldn’t figure out whether the characters’ jarring “unapproachability” was intentional or the result of somewhat stilted writing. For example, Vonlai and his sister Dalah’s bickering often got borderline vicious with no real explanation from their personalities, with the result being that their improved relationship at the end came off as questionable to me. I was left feeling less emotionally attached to the characters than I wanted to be, especially since the book is on such a sensitive matter, but I’m not sure if anything could’ve been done about that, whether that was just an inevitable result of the subject material.
Overall, you can read ESCAPING THE TIGER as an essential work on Lao and Thai history, despite its sometimes detached writing. This could be a good one for the avid young reader who’s interested in learning an important history lesson.
Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Cover discussion: 3 out of 5 - It's not really one that would capture my attention, but then again, it's highly appropriate for the story, and hints at the tension that the Sirivong family will face in the book. Plus, there are Asian people on the cover! Score one for the publisher getting it right!
HarperCollins / Mar. 9, 2010 / 216pp. / $16.99
Review copy provided by publisher. Thanks, E!