There have been many great books about the Vietnam War, from many different perspectives — from Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer” to Frances FitzGerald’s “Fire in the Lake.” But I have never before read one I would describe as quiet and graceful.
As Paul Yoon tells us in a brief introduction to his slim novel, “Run Me to Earth,” between 1964 and 1973, the tiny country of Laos was bombed more than 580,000 times — an average of every eight minutes. Yoon’s artfully orchestrated narrative illuminates this loudest, harshest, most chaotic of situations with restraint and elegance, finding and tracing an emotional thread that weaves the story into the reader’s heart.
The opening chapter, set in 1969, introduces three teenagers who are helping out at a field hospital in the former residence of a French tycoon known only as the Tobacco Captain. Alisak, Prany and Noi, the latter two brother and sister, were once next-door neighbors. “Then they had cared for each other when there was no one else to care for them.” After three years of wandering around their war-torn region, barely surviving, a passing jeep slows down beside them on the road and offers a job opportunity. They jump in.
At the mansion-turned-hospital, which is surrounded by fields full of unexploded bombs, they work with a doctor named Vang. He teaches them to care for the dying, and also a little French and English. He plays the piano in the corner room where the three take turns at the window with binoculars as lookout. In return for his kindnesses, they find his glasses when he misplaces them. The best part of their job is performing various errands using the motorbikes left behind by the Tobacco Captain.
As Alisak tells someone many years later, ashamed to admit it, he was happy there.
At the end of this section, Vang announces that the American planes are coming again and the hospital must be evacuated. Though some patients are too injured to be transported, others will go with the staff by helicopter — to where, they don’t know. Rumor has it, Thailand or France. Prany and Noi are hoping it will be France, so they can see the things Vang has described, “French cigarettes and wine and bread and the Seine.”
Subsequent sections are set in 1974, 1977, back in 1969, then ahead to 1994 and 2018. Two other characters, Auntie and Khit, rumors themselves in the first section, come into focus. The unfolding of the narrative is fueled by what one of the characters calls “the insanity of a promise.” Amid all the other insanities, a few words uttered to another person can have a force equal to destiny, equal to war.
And then there is the novelist’s promise to the reader: that he will tell us what happened to Alisak, Noi, Prany and Vang, and we will not be left entirely without hope.
Promises kept. This unique work of historical fiction could not be more timely, or more timeless.
Marion Winik is the author of “The Big Book of the Dead” and the host of the Weekly Reader podcast. Visit her at marionwinik.com.
Run Me to Earth
By: Paul Yoon.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 254 pages, $26.
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