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Butterfly Yellow, by Thanhha Lai. 

May 19, 2019

Butterfly Yellow
Butterfly Yellow, by Thanhha Lai. HarperCollins, August 2019.

5 stars

A fine YA novel about a refugee newly arrived from Viet Nam, searching for her lost younger brother on the plains of west Texas. She slowly opens herself to unlikely friend and to the scars of her own traumatic journey.

Thanhha Lai was born in Vietnam and fled as the war ended.  For a time she lived as a refugee in Alabama where she encountered our nation’s “sharp-edged barriers of color, ethnicity, religion, and custom.” After graduating from the University of Texas, Austin, she worked as a journalist on the west coast, reporting on its Vietnam community.  She earned a Masters of Fine Arts from New York University.  She has published several children’s books and been awarded that genre’s highest prizes, National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and a Newberry Honor.   With her new novel, she enters the field of Young Adult fiction.

In Butterfly Yellow, Hang is a teenage refugee who arrives in “the brown ocean” of west Texas  with a clue that her younger brother had gone there after being lost in the chaotic exodus in Siagon six years earlier. Hang feels responsible and guilty for his loss, and her main purpose is to find and “save” him.  With the help of unlikely strangers, Hang locates her brother, but he no longer remembers her or their family.  He rejects her and she takes a job nearby to watch him and try to gain his acceptance. In the process, Hang slowly begins to open herself to new friends and to her own scars from her traumatic journey across the Pacific.

I found Thanhha Lai to be a sensitive writer graphically describing landscape and individuals with grace.  Her prose is clear and calm, and does not overly dramaticsize painful events.  She is particularly good in writing about trauma, quietly and with dignity.   Butterfly Yellow will probably  be especially meaningful for young people encountering a range of peers, foreign and hurt by previous experiences unlike their own.  Her book models how we all can  relate to other people’s pain.  LeeKidd, a Texas pseudo-cowboy, offers an example of simple friendship that allows Hang to thaw.  He doesn’t push her to reveal her scars, but he is there to listen and be supportive.

Although this is a book written primarily for young adults, older readers can enjoy and gain from it as well,  if they can avoid getting impatient with the naivete and silliness of the teenage characters.

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