BookBrowse Reviews Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai

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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

    Paperback:
    Oct 2020, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
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Set in 1981, a Vietnamese refugee seeks her little brother in Texas with the help of a wannabe rodeo star in this radiant YA debut.

Voted 2019 Best Young Adult Award Winner by BookBrowse Subscribers

As readers, many of us hope for lasting images from books, for thoughts expressed by authors that might match what we've believed in our souls, but couldn't articulate ourselves. Encounters with books like these become deeply imprinted.

Butterfly Yellow, the young adult debut of Thanhhà Lại, author of two highly-acclaimed books for middle grade readers, offers all of that and more. Born from the ashes of the Vietnam War, it gently, poetically reminds us that the current national clamor and debate over immigrants and refugees arriving in the United States is nothing new. The book is not overtly political, though; Lai is more interested in exhibiting human kindness and understanding.

This poignant, heartfelt novel begins in the summer of 1981 from the perspective of 18-year-old LeeRoy (whose given name is Leslie Dwight Cooper), a longtime Texas resident with University of Texas professor parents. He started going by "Lee" in junior high after being teased on the playground, and added Roy, after his grandfather, on the very day the story begins. After graduating high school, LeeRoy sets out to follow and emulate his hero, rodeo bareback rider Bruce Ford. Nothing is going to stop him, not even his lack of experience with animals, which he tries to gloss over with a brand-new outfit and Ford F-350 truck.

Real life interferes in a convenience store parking lot when a Good Samaritan couple suddenly thrusts upon him the responsibility of driving a stranded Vietnamese refugee to Amarillo. Hằng was separated from her brother a little over six years earlier, and believes he ended up in Amarillo after being swept up in Operation Babylift (see Beyond the Book), a government program that sought to bring Vietnamese orphans to the United States (though these particular siblings were not actually orphans). Hằng's younger brother was taken, but at 12, she was rejected for being too old. After that came an escape from Vietnam on a small, overcrowded fishing boat, and a horrific experience on an island. Hằng made it to a refugee processing camp in the Philippines, and was eventually sent to the U.S. under Extreme Trauma status to stay with family who had gotten out of Vietnam long before; she was with them for only a day before going in search of her brother. This backstory is gracefully interwoven throughout the book.

Wisely, Lại divides Butterfly Yellow between LeeRoy and Hằng's perspectives in order to capture her reactions to the new, strange country and vast Texas land she encounters, and his gradual acclimation to the unorthodox situation he's found himself in. Soon enough, LeeRoy forgets his Bruce Ford dreams as he gets more deeply involved in Hằng's quest to find her brother.

Besides the languid stretch of summer that Lại portrays so well — even as family drama mounts — her fascination with the English language gives Butterfly Yellow its lasting power. Ordinary moments provide touching beauty, such as Hằng speaking English phonetically in Vietnamese as she learns it, and lingering over the Vietnamese words she teaches LeeRoy. Lại bottles these moments in such a way that we also linger over them, not moving on to the next paragraph or the next chapter until we note how interesting it is that the word "trái," for example, is "fruit," and that a word placed after it characterizes the type, i.e. "trái mit" means "jackfruit." There's also a wondrous section in a chapter midway through about Hằng trying to understand more English by using word trees to break up each sentence, and the process involved.

Above all, Butterfly Yellow seeks to remind us that a genuine and profound human connection can happen anywhere, at any time, with anyone. It doesn't matter who we are or where we've come from; we are all human and therefore we already know something of each other.

Reviewed by Rory L. Aronsky

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in October 2019, and has been updated for the November 2020 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  Operation Babylift

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