A Grain of Rice by Nhung N. Tran-Davies
(Tradewind $12.95/$19.95hc) 2018

Destitute, feeling fortunate to be alive after a tremendous storm has almost decimated their bamboo caul (house) on stilts on the Mekong River, 13-year-old Yen, with her courageous, seamstress mother and five siblings, must somehow reinvent their lives.

It?s what people do in Vietnam.

After French colonials were finally sent packing, the country was ravaged by civil war and American bombs. After Uncle Sam was vanquished, the Vietnamese endured more havoc when millions were sent to re-education camps, prisons or killed by the Viet Cong victors.

Leaving the rest of their family behind in Vinh My village, Yen and her mother, Ma, must take their little boat downriver to the neighbouring village of Phong Thang, where they must hire a motor boat to take them further to Ca Mau?where Yen?s father is thought to be.

Her father?s name is not to be mentioned, but Yen secretly hopes for a reunion. She has never been told exactly what bad thing he might have done, or why Ma has chosen not to live with him; she only remembers him as a man who never scolded her.

?Pride is a foolish thing.? ?Crying won?t help.? ?Trust no one.? Ma is a tough mother. She has to be in order to negotiate her way through Viet Cong officialdom. They revisit the house that Yen had lived in until age six. When Yen eventually reconnects with her father, it?s not the reunion she has been craving. She doesn?t tell anyone.

Back in their home village, the family sells most of its possessions, except the sewing machine. When a rumour spreads that Saigon could be their secret destination, they must suddenly flee on the river, by moonlight, leaving behind Ma?s precious sewing machine, their only source of income, to avoid being questioned and likely imprisoned by authorities.

?The sound of a gunshot reverberated through the consuming darkness, echoing over the water from behind us. Monkeys shook the trees, shrieking? My heart felt like it had exploded into a million pieces. Tears rolled down my cheeks.?

Eventually they join a crowd of passengers lined up for the day-long bus trip to Ho Chi Minh City, the new name for Saigon?

Set during the late 1970s, Nhung N. Tran-Davies? debut pre-teen novel A Grain of Rice is directly based on the author?s own experiences when there was a mass exodus of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. She was one among a million-plus Vietnamese who earned the name Boat People, risking illness, starvation and attacks from pirates to seek better lives in countries such as Canada.

Having made her way to Canada after spending eight months in a Red Cross-run refugee camp in Malaysia, Nhung N. Tran-Davies became a doctor with three children of her own. In 2016, her family helped sponsor two families fleeing the conflict in Syria.

978-1-926890-25-8 / 978-1-926890-33-3 hc