Excerpt from Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Butterfly Yellow

by Thanhha Lai

Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai X
Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2019, 304 pages

    Oct 2020, 320 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
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About this Book

Print Excerpt

Brittle Brown Ocean

On the bus, Hằng stares into the endless expanse. She concentrates on even inhales, then slow exhales. Nibbling on ginger, she's determined to soothe the relentless stirrings of nausea as her intestines coil into eels.

Fiery ginger flashes down and quiets the eels. She sharpens her stare. Having flown in from a refugee camp yesterday, she's already on her way to A-ma-ri-lo. Never mind that her inner clock still clicks thirteen hours ahead. Never mind that her uncle will be chasing her. Never mind that she can barely speak English and can understand only half of a sentence.

The other passengers spit out words in a hissy, snaky language. How they talk, and sing and hum, and eat, how they eat. An explosion of cheer and chemicals: sweet, tangy, salty, bubbly, crispy, oniony. None of it helps her nausea.

They must see her as strange. A jagged-hair girl cocooned in long sleeves, heavy pants. Meanwhile they dress for the beach. This, despite vents blowing such frigid air Hằng senses fog in her breaths.

She sits by herself and marvels at a land so flat it erases the horizon, presenting a brittle brown ocean instead of glassy blue green. Still, the same vastness, the same unknown.

Each bounce on the bus recalls bobbing on a boat. Hằng bites off a chunk of ginger. Chomps into searing bitterness. Anything to stop memories of her escape by sea.

Summer 1981

A boy of eighteen, self-renamed LeeRoy that very morning, is driving past the same dry expanse. Here and there, scraggly mesquites break up the blanket of brown. Enough heat out there to scorch every tree into kindling. Sitting in air-conditioning, he whistles, having waited all his life to reach this open plain where a man can get at his true self.

LeeRoy has driven up from Austin, from his home in the Hill Country where rolling green slopes don't stand a chance against the allure of dusty cowboy country. His confused parents, UT professors, have been told not to expect him back for a good long while. It took more than a month after graduation to skedaddle, his folks inventing one reason or another to hold on to him. A party, a family trip to Big Ben, opening weekend for Indiana Jones, then an all-out Fourth of July barbecue last night.

This morning LeeRoy finally headed out for the Lone Star, a honky-tonk in Amarillo where his idol, Bruce Ford, will be making a splash.

Summer 1981, Bruce Ford has been the NFR bareback champion two years running. In his prime at twenty-nine, he sits on an incensed bronco like he's on a swing. True, LeeRoy has never met Ford, but he's absorbed everything about this man, beginning three years ago when Ford won the PRCA season championship.

It's understood that cowboys don't take kindly to hangers-on. At a party though, where Ford will likely have a few beers and loosen up, LeeRoy is betting the champ will spare his number-one fan a portion of his time. LeeRoy plans on approaching Mr. Ford and offering up free labor. Mucking, grooming, cooldowns. Hell, LeeRoy might as well dream big and imagine his tag-a-long turning into a real job, putting him front and center in Oklahoma City when the man himself will defend his title come December.


That same morning, using halting English aided by scratchy illustrations, Hằng persuaded her cousin En-Di (illogically spelled "Angie") to risk her own father's fury and drive her to the bus station. She gestured a story that her brother is distraught and waiting for her. It's been six years, two months, and fifteen days since April 20, 1975, when the siblings got separated.

Hằng did not need to explain that retrieving her brother equated to her life's singular focus. Every twitch in her face said it for her.

"Really? Your brother knows you're coming? Dad would never let you go. But then he says no to everything. You have to do this alone? He's going to be livid, and I guess I can say you insisted and cried and were going to drive off and wreck my Mustang. And you're eighteen, you should be able to go off by yourself, I certainly will be out of here in two years. You are eighteen?"

Excerpted from Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai. Copyright © 2019 by Thanhha Lai. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Children's Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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