Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Book Review - Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother, An American Daughter, by Lan Cao

Guest review by: Becki Bayley

Almost all of my teachers in the department saw Vietnam as their experience, their rite of passage, the trigger to their disillusionment, the portal to their identity and worldview. They wanted their Vietnam to be my inheritance. I already had my own inheritance of loss, which came from my parents. My teachers told me those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But what they wanted was for me to remember their past, to accept and ventriloquize their memories, even though I was still trying to make sense of mine.

Like always remembering that my father had taken part in fifty-three airborne assault landings in Long An Province, almost all of which he commanded. I did not know this from him; my father did not talk to me about the war unless I asked him very specific questions. I knew this only because I found his Legion of Merit documents in a box that Papa Fritz gave me. Like remembering my mother’s multiple lives, each one sifted and rebuilt from the ashes of the prior ones: first, life in a village risen from the emerald fields of Sóc Trăng, burned down by insurgents; then fleeing from another hamlet pillaged by Japanese soldiers; and then escaping the French by floating corpselike, eyes closed, arms and legs outstretched, down a river bloated with decapitated heads and swollen bodies. Moving to the North before partition and then fleeing back to the South after 1954. Building a life in Saigon and then leaving in 1975.

This memoir was told in alternating chapters by Lan, an attorney and author who came to the U.S. as a young refugee girl in 1975, and Harlan, an American teenager and the daughter of Lan.

Official synopsis:
Book Review - Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother, An American Daughter, by Lan Cao
In 1975, thirteen-year-old Lan Cao boarded an airplane in Saigon and got off in a world where she faced hosts she had not met before, a language she didn't speak, and food she didn't recognize, with the faint hope that she would be able to go home soon. Lan fought her way through confusion, and racism, to become a successful lawyer and novelist. Four decades later, she faced the biggest challenge in her life: raising her daughter Harlan—half Vietnamese by birth and 100 percent American teenager by inclination. In their lyrical joint memoir, told in alternating voices, mother and daughter cross ages and ethnicities to tackle the hardest questions about assimilation, aspiration, and family.

Lan wrestles with her identities as not merely an immigrant but a refugee from an unpopular war. She has bigoted teachers who undermine her in the classroom and tormenting inner demons, but she does achieve—either despite or because of the work ethic and tight support of a traditional Vietnamese family struggling to get by in a small American town. Lan has ambitions, for herself, and for her daughter, but even as an adult feels tentative about her place in her adoptive country, and ventures through motherhood as if it is a foreign landscape.

Reflecting and refracting her mother's narrative, Harlan fiercely describes the rites of passage of childhood and adolescence, filtered through the aftereffects of her family's history of war, tragedy, and migration. Harlan's struggle to make friends in high school challenges her mother to step back and let her daughter find her own way.

Family in Six Tones speaks both to the unique struggles of refugees and to the universal tug-of-war between mothers and daughters. The journey of an immigrant—away from war and loss toward peace and a new life—and the journey of a mother raising a child to be secure and happy are both steep paths filled with detours and stumbling blocks. Through explosive fights and painful setbacks, mother and daughter search for a way to accept the past and face the future together.

Lan and Harlan struggle with different aspects of their heritage and life in America. Lan wants to preserve her memories of the Vietnam of her youth, and pass down some of the important (to her) societal norms of Vietnam to her daughter. At the same time, she also wants to forget the horrible memories of the war she grew up during, and the battleground that was realistically the Vietnam of her youth. Harlan just wants to be a normal American teen, which is difficult with her mother’s Vietnamese expectations and the background of the Vietnamese community. She understands her mother has struggled, but she just wants normalcy.

Both women shared their lives and hardships eloquently and clearly, but the same event can be perceived quite differently from two different people who experienced it. Lan and Harlan definitely had different takeaways from the same experiences. They held nothing back while describing the full impact of events on them physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Overall, I’d give this book 3 out of 5 stars. Lan’s viewpoint was a unique presentation of life in a war zone and as a refugee. Harlan told the interesting story of a teenager who doesn’t want to ignore her heritage, but also doesn’t want to be held to standards from a world that is not reality for her.

{click here to purchase}

Becki Bayley is a wife and mother. In her spare time she enjoys reading, washing dishes and laundry, playing the flute, and drinking Southern Comfort and Cherry Coke. More of her book reviews and adventures are available at SweetlyBSquared.com.


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