To Minnesotans, rich in immigrant lore, Kao Kalia Yang's family memoir will strike familiar chords.
Yes, there are the tales of families learning a new language and culture, struggling to survive in modest jobs and housing, dreaming of better lives for their children. Of schoolchildren translating for their elders, learning English swear words and taking care of younger siblings while parents worked. Of struggles between ancient wisdom and modern lifestyles.
But while many of our forebears from a century ago came to Minnesota in search of opportunity, Yang's family and other Hmong people had to run for their lives. After the Vietnam War spilled into Laos, they endured years of violence, jungle privation and refugee camps.
Yang was born in 1980 in a Thai refugee camp "where kids kept secrets and adults stayed inside themselves."
Her book "The Latehomecomer" reprises events before her birth: It is the love story of her parents, a gripping tale of adventure and escape, a history lesson of the Hmong people dating to their years in China, a tribute to Yang's beloved grandmother and a window into Hmong funeral customs.
Yang estimates that more than 100,000 of 300,000 Hmong people were killed during the war. Her mother and father and their families spent four years wandering the jungles. They fled bombing and armed Pathet Lao soldiers, but Yang's mother (pregnant with Yang's older sister) was captured and held prisoner for seven months before being rescued and reunited with her husband. Yang's parents tied themselves together with their firstborn to escape across the swift Mekong River into Thailand, where "fear battled exhaustion" in refugee camps ringed with barbed wire.
When Yang was 6, the family made it to Minnesota, where relatives already had settled. Their series of cramped accommodations -- the family eventually included seven children -- included a place in St. Paul's McDonough housing project and later a house they believed was haunted.
Yang (whose culture had no modern written language until 1950) found early that "English was hard on my tongue." But she became a graduate of Carleton College and Columbia University and co-founder of Words Wanted, a St. Paul company that helps immigrants with writing, translating and business services. She also was a collaborator on "The Place Where We Were Born," a documentary film about Hmong refugees.
Her writing is often colorful, sometimes purple, sometimes graced with beautiful phrases. Her revelations are surprising -- from learning the concept of seatbelts to the idea that babies come from clouds and tales of her grandmother's escape from a tiger. The account of her relationship with her dying grandmother, a shaman who feared being forgotten, is touching.
Thanks to Yang, the grandmother will not be forgotten. And neither will this book.
Robert Franklin, a retired Star Tribune reporter and editor, is a senior adjunct faculty member at the University of St. Thomas.