From School Library Journal
Grade 7–10—When 12-year-old Vonlai's family escapes communist rule in Laos, he expects to find safety in a refuge camp in Thailand. He does not expect to practically drown in the Mekong River or to experience the horrible conditions that he and his family find themselves in. The refugee camp offers little food, water, adequate sanitation, or security, and the heat is relentless. Vonlai thrives at school, but after one year, he is too old for even this meager asylum. An elderly refugee, Colonel, befriends him and teaches him to whittle away, both the days that turn to years and the wooden figurines he is carving. Yet, it is the ever-present threat to his 16-year-old sister's virtue that sabotages any sense of well-being. A guard watches her, stalking and circling in closer and closer, keeping readers feeling as uneasy as Vonlai. This compelling novel offers significant historical background. This is certainly a book to prompt purposeful discussion to increase historical and multicultural awareness.—Alison Follos, North Country School, Lake Placid, NY
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Based on the author’s husband’s experience, this first novel about escape from Communist Laos in 1982 is told from the viewpoint of Vonlai Sirivong, 12, who flees with his family across the border to Thailand. The focus is on his four years spent in a cramped, miserable UN refugee camp, where he is unable to attend school after sixth grade, and he waits for admission to the U.S. Brutality is always present: in one scene, Vonlai protects his older sister from attempted rape. He also bonds with an older man who lost everything and dreams of life in America. Finally, his family is interviewed, they say good-bye to the camp, and they travel to Kansas, where Vonlai hates the food, loves the snow, and plays sports. The specific details about camp life may be too repetitive for some readers. But refugee families and their friends everywhere will recognize the cruel dislocation, the interminable wait, and the search for home. Grades 9-12. --Hazel Rochman