I admit it: more than a few pages now have drying leftover droplets. Elizabeth Partridge, whose last title was the multi-award-winning Marching for Freedom, sure knows how to make a jaded old reader go sniff, sniff.
On the last day of seventh grade, best friends Tracy and Stargazer look forward to an unplanned summer. Their one goal – Stargazer’s “brain wave” – is to build a Viking funeral ship. How fitting that this turns out to be the summer of Tracy’s ghosts.
After five years of her American life, loved and nurtured by her adoptive parents, Tracy’s Vietnamese past encroaches, memories that take her from here to there. Her protective grandmother who raised her and her absent but adored mother who worked to support them in an American army base are back to remind her of her final months in her native, war-torn homeland. There she was con lai, meaning “half-blood,” her American GI father’s genes imprinted in her light hair and round eyes. Here she is asked if she speaks English, “Looking at me like they were trying to remember if they’d seen people like me in some National Geographic article.”
While searching for tools in her father’s workshop with Stargazer to build his ship, the two find an army ammunition box with a U.S. military dogtag inside. They’re caught by Tracy’s father, cold and angry at their curiosity. Not only have they broken the lock on the carefully hidden ammo box, but Tracy’s father is suddenly forced to confront his own memories and nightmares from his own tour of duty in Vietnam.
As more of Tracy’s frightening past returns, the more her father withdraws into his own unfinished traumas. Her mother can only look on helplessly, frightened by their silence. Delicately, gently … but so very painfully, father and daughter must somehow find a way to bring past to present, and re-entwine their futures back together as a family.
Partridge is a masterful storyteller, weaving in just enough history, war gore, and hippie politics to underscore how the victims of war are not just the body bags shipped home. At book’s end, she includes a detailed appendix in Q&A format that further explores historical context, psychological consequences such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), the leftover hapa children fathered by U.S. military men disparagingly referred to as con lai or bui doi (literally, “children of the dust”), the anti-war movement, dogtags, the post-war adoption of Vietnamese orphans, and more.
And Partridge’s final message? In spite of collateral damage (and Partridge doesn’t shy away and offer perfect endings), families – of all backgrounds, ethnicities, and beliefs – can emerge and grow, even out of the death and destruction of war.
Tidbit: In Partridge’s acknowledgements, she includes a dear friend (shrinking the world once again), Deann Borshay Liem, who made the phenomenal transracial adoption films, First Person Plural and In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee. As I get a small mention in the credits for First Person (totally undeserved, but so gave me that ‘gawwww’ feeling of gratitude), I’m feeling a wee bit included, too.
Readers: Middle Grade