This country was blessed with so much abundance, even in this bleak and barren city. But I did not care about these things. All I wanted was to be home, our true home, living in our quiet village. Working in our fields. It puzzled me that the American officials had flown simple farmers from the highlands of Laos across oceans and continents to live in a city like this. It made no sense. Nothing in this new life made any sense.
(from Across the Mekong River, page 99)
Across the Mekong River is a beautifully complex story of the immigrant experience, one that surprised me with its wonderfully flawed characters and intense emotion. I know many readers shun self-published novels, but in this case, you’d be doing yourself a great disservice because Elaine Russell’s story of a family fleeing the communist government in Laos is one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Russell begins the story in 1990, 12 years after Ly Nou, then age five, her parents, and two older brothers fled Laos, making a frenzied escape with several other family members across the Mekong River into Thailand. Now known as Laura Lee, she is in a courtroom in California, pitted against the father she loves so much for reasons that will become clear to readers as her story unfolds. She details the terror of those moments on the run from the communist Pathet Laos, which was allied with the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. Nou’s family are Hmong, an ethnic tribe that lived and farmed on the hillsides of Laos and was treated brutally by the communist government for siding with the Americans during the Vietnam War.
Across the Mekong River is told in alternating viewpoints by Nou/Laura, her father, Pao, and her mother, Yer, beginning at the end of the civil war in Laos in 1973. When the war ended, Pao leaves the military and returns to his village to farm and live peacefully with his family, only to become a prisoner when the communists take over the government in 1975. Yer details the fear that permeated the village during the war and after, how the communists would arrive unannounced and the women would have to run for their lives. As much as they love their land and despite its connections to the ancestors and spirits whom they worship, they have no choice but to run for their lives.
But the refugee camp in Thailand to which they flee in 1978 is no picnic. The stench, the filth, and the hunger are unbearable, and Pao and his daughter can do nothing but watch Yer withdraw as grief overwhelms her. Even after reuniting with relatives in another refugee camp, the family realizes it cannot sit in limbo in such horrid conditions forever, as returning to their homeland is not likely. Russell follows the family as they relocate to the United States, first in Minneapolis and then in Sacramento. In great detail, she describes the Hmong culture, how they adjusted or failed to adjust to life in America, the discrimination they faced due to plain ignorance as well as anger about the Vietnam War, and how they struggled to make ends meet in a city plagued by gang violence. Being able to see the experience from the eyes of each character made the book more powerful than it would have been otherwise.
Readers see Pao transition from a smart, successful student and content farmer in Laos, a man whose culture gives him authority over his family, to a struggling immigrant trying to grasp the English language, take care of his expanding family, and grasp the fact that his authority goes only so far in America. He understands that adjustments need to be made to succeed in America and supports Nou’s education, but like Yer — who longs for her homeland and resists the changes forced upon her — he expects Nou to honor the family, retain the Hmong customs, and marry a Hmong man when her parents say it’s time. Nou is torn between two worlds, wanting to please her family by honoring her Hmong heritage but also wanting to fit in and become a normal American teenager, even though she knows the latter is impossible.
Russell brilliantly portrays this culture clash and the parent-child struggle common among immigrants. She describes Laos so wonderfully I could almost picture the beautiful landscape in my mind, and I could appreciate how despite all the horrible things that happened there after the war, these people would long to return to their villages. These characters and their experiences felt so real to me. I ached when they were in pain, and because I could see exactly where each of them was coming from, the line between who was right and who was wrong blurred.
Across the Mekong River is a tale of war and escape, familial love and betrayal, and the difficulties immigrants face when the cultural of their new country is so drastically different from what they’ve known all their lives. The characters are amazingly authentic, and they take what was already an interesting story and turn it into something great. It’s not an easy novel to read because Russell’s writing really emphasizes the brutality, the misunderstandings, and the pain, but it’s an important one and honestly one of the best novels I’ve ever read about the immigrant experience.
Disclosure: I received Across the Mekong River from Julia Drake PR for review.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.