15 Aug / Butterfly Yellow by Thanhhà Lại [in Shelf Awareness]
In April 1975, the U.S. implemented Operation Babylift, a mass evacuation of children from South Việt Nam. As the country imploded, 12-year-old Hằng – who looked 8 – and her 5-year-old brother, Linh – who passed for 3 – presented themselves at the airport as orphans ready to be saved. Deemed too old, Hằng was helpless as Linh was torn from her arms and forcibly carried onto the airplane. Interrupting Hằng’s frantic screams, an American volunteer pressed a card into her hands, giving Hằng her only link to Linh: “405 Mesquite Street, Amarillo, Texas.”
Six years, two months, and 15 days later, Hằng is finally on her way to reunite with Linh. Having arrived in Dallas the day before, she boards a bus bound for Amarillo, but gets stranded at a rest stop after a severe bout of motion sickness. A kindhearted couple somehow maneuver her into the new, red truck of 18-year-old Leslie Dwight Cooper, who just that morning renamed himself LeeRoy. He thought he’d embark on a post-high school adventure to pursue his dreams of finally becoming a bona fide cowboy despite the expectations of his two Yale-educated professor-parents. But now his solo has become an unexpected duet.
LeeRoy’s good Samaritan-ambush is initially hard work, especially with Hằng’s bewildered silence. Her singular determination to find Linh takes the unlikely pair on a wild ride out to horse country (and, eventually, cantaloupe farming). For Hằng, Linh is “the only person left from her youth,” but Linh, now 11 and living happily as David with a new mother he adores, remembers nothing of his faraway past. Having lost their grandmother, father, and mother, Hằng must figure out which stories she can share that will convince her brother of their connection.
National Book Award winner Thanhhà Lại (Inside Out & Back Again; Listen, Slowly) makes her young adult debut with Butterfly Yellow, which is inspired by her own background of fleeing war as a child, living in the U.S. as a refugee, and spending her adolescence in Texas. Lại literally inscribes her dual cultures onto the page, visually combining LeeRoy’s vernacular English with Hằng’s English-as-a-foreign-language through the use of diacritical-laden Vietnamese syllables: “Thó-sì-lȃu, bờ-li-sì,” Hằng requests, which LeeRoy realizes is “Talk slowly, please.” While readers might find deciphering such phrasing a challenge, LeeRoy’s uncanny ability to understand Hằng bodes well for their evolving communication. As LeeRoy and Hằng grow from wary strangers to possible soulmates, Lại suffuses the unlikely relationship with gentle humor, yet she remains unblinkingly candid about Hằng’s left-behind experiences, graphically emphasizing her most gruesome memories of survival through italicized flashbacks. Hằng is hardly free of trauma, the siblings’ reunion is not made-in-Hollywood, and too-easy happy endings aren’t guaranteed, yet Lại’s love-story-of-sorts remains surprisingly, consistently endearing. Dedicated “In memory of the thousands of refugees at the bottom of the sea,” Lại personalizes history with compelling characters, lively interactions, and, most importantly, engrossing storytelling.
Shelf Talker: In National Book Award winner Thanhhà Lại’s Butterfly Yellow, Vietnamese refugee Hằng arrives in the U.S. determined to find her younger brother – but reunion is just the beginning of getting him back.
Readers: Young Adult