Butterfly Yellow by Thanhhà Lḁi
I’m a sucker for books that feature diverse protagonists, especially if the plot involves culture clash. When I saw this in the store, I couldn’t resist. It did not disappoint.
“In the final days of the Vietnam War, Hằng takes her little brother, Linh, to the airport, determined to find a way to America, a place of freedom and wonder. In a split second, Linh is ripped from her arms—and Hằng is left behind in a war-torn country.
Six years later, Hằng has made the harrowing journey as a refugee from Vietnam to Texas, a flat, endless expanse dotted with twisty mesquite trees and oil fields. She doesn’t know how she will find her little brother in this foreign land filled with people who speak hissy, snaky English. Then she meets LeeRoy, a city boy with big rodeo dreams.
Hằng is overjoyed when she and Linh are finally reunited. But her heart is crushed when she realizes that he doesn’t remember her, their family, or Vietnam. The distance between them feels greater than ever. But Hằng has come so far and will do anything to bridge the gap.”
Hằng is a spunky young woman whose determination brings her through the horrors of refugee life to her brother, a true role model for any age. Plagued by guilt, haunted by trauma, and filled with longing, her character garners immediate empathy without being piteous.
LeeRoy is a wannabe cowboy who always thinks of food. At first, his character came off as corny, but his small acts of heroism and kindness won me over by the end. The contrast between Hằng and LeeRoy provides a beautiful example of people reaching each other across cultures. So different, yet perfect friends. Her stubbornness and his cowboy grit collide in adorable spats. By the end, I loved them both.
Overall, the story was well-paced and kept me engaged throughout. I like that the book begins with Hằng finding her brother, and the story revolves around her difficulty in reconnecting with him. The challenges that arrive after escaping a war zone are an often untold part of the refugee story.
My one critique is that I waited the entire book to learn what happened to Hằng on the island, and the author dumped it all in a series of flashbacks. The story was worth the wait, but I wish she had sprinkled more of it in sooner. I like how LeeRoy supports her during that time, and I love that he never asks her to explain.
I love reading books by poets. I’ve read several by Diane Ackerman and love how descriptive she is. Lḁi’s prose is so full of imagery that reading it is like looking at a painting. Beautiful and imaginative, her descriptions reflect Hằng’s perspective. Reading from Hằng’s point of view makes Texas feel like an alien land, exactly how it seems to Hằng. LeeRoy’s perspective is much more down-to-earth, and I love that Lḁi includes so many forced westernisms for the wannabe cowboy.
The best part, for me, about Lḁi’s writing is her inclusion of Vietnamese and her use of English-in-Vietnamese spellings. Hằng’s dialogue and thoughts seem that much more real. Lḁi uses LeeRoy to “translate” in a way that naturally fits with the flow of the story, not forced. Everything is easy to understand, yet the writing itself adds to the sense of two cultures colliding. As a bilingual speech therapist, I could gush for pages about how much I loved this, but you get the idea.
Butterfly Yellow is a beautifully written and emotionally moving story of redemption and reconnection. I loved every word, and highly recommend it.
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