Review by Genevieve Ruth Harvey, 16
Butterfly Yellow By Thanhha Lai
The lacuna that separates Hang from the Texans is evident in the first chapter as she munches on ginger, isolating herself on the boat from others around her, desperately attempting to suppress the memories of her experiences at sea in the midst of the Vietnam War. The thoughts are too depressing to bear. Meanwhile, Lee-Roy, an obvious foreigner and wannabe cowboy, leaves the rolling green hills to find destiny in the crude countryside. It is the summer of 1981 and Lee-Roy is optimistic while Hang’s entire mindset is focused on figuring out a way to reunite with her brother. Hang has a subtle admiration from cowboys – it brings redolent feelings of her and her baby brother as children in Vietnam. Thus, it is no coincidence that she and Lee-Roy cross paths.
There is a marvelous twist in the story when Hang and Lee-Roy begin communicating with each other; the incomprehensive Vietnamese-English jargon marks the beginning steps in their relationship transitioning from strangers to friends. Hang’s curiosity and Lee-Roy’s impatience set a comedic tone for the rest of the novel. Without warning, the story transitions into a subtle love story between Hang and Lee-Roy, which helps to illuminate the novel into a more engrossing narrative. The reader begins to appreciate and grin as they read Lee-Roy’s thoughts and notice his keen observations about Hang’s mannerisms.
The plot is easy to follow, shifting narrations between the two protagonists, Lee-Roy and Hang. Throughout the journey, Hang is guided by her grandmother’s, Ba’s, adages. Lee-Roy is on a mission to see Bruce Ford when his trip gets interrupted with Hang, this lost Vietnamese girl who desperately needs a ride to “405 Mesquite Street in Amarillo.” Upon arriving at this long-awaited location, Hang is surprised to be met with not her baby brother, but a middle-aged woman named Mrs. Brown. Upon welcoming Hang into her home, Mrs. Brown accidentally reveals that she knows who Hang is looking for. She communicates with Hang through her drawings and eventually makes the connection that Linh, Hang’s brother, is David. As the story develops, it becomes clear that Hang’s painful memories of traveling across the sea in Vietnam can no longer be ignored. Faced with the overwhelming remembrance of such traumatic experiences, Hang is forced to embrace vulnerability. To her luck, Cora, David’s mother, becomes more sympathetic and Hang’s relationship with her brother improves.
Lai crafts a beautiful tale, interwoven with Vietnamese and American culture, aspirations, and hope. The plot does become stagnant at times; the shift between narrations can at times become dull. In the end, I believe Lai captures the complexity behind immigration; she brings to attention how difficult it can be to convince someone to return to their native culture when they have already become ensconced within a new milieu and would not benefit from being removed from it. This is the situation that Hang is presented with when meeting Linh; he has grown up in America and has no recollection of Vietnam, thus her attempt to force him to remember only brings more heartache, pain, and frustration. Her further attempts to remain in close proximity with him only causes greater division; it is clear that she must change her approach. Once Hang accepts this reality, her relationship with her brother is allowed to amend itself on its own terms, allowing time and patience to be the final arbiters.
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Catalog Number: LAI,THA