Both the inside and outside covers here are exactly the same: a mostly well-ordered, three-generation family tree … except for the bottom right corner in which the youngest member – the book’s author/creator GB Tran – is desperately attempting to complete the thus-far neatly organized tree. Under one arm, Tran holds his matching portrait with his initial-ized American name slightly askew, while desperately reaching out to grab the placard that bears his full Vietnamese moniker “Gia-Bao” which is falling just out of his reach. Scattered below him are unnamed portraits that don’t seem to have a designated destination in the familial constellation.
Tran’s pictures throughout this extraordinary graphic memoir speak proverbial volumes. As the only U.S.-born member of his scattered Vietnamese family, he is clearly the ‘odd man out,’ attempting to bridge his American ‘GB’ self with his inherited ‘Gia-Bao’ heritage. Thirty years after his family fled their war-torn country, Tran joins his parents on his first journey to his ancestral home. Packed into his luggage is a high school graduation gift his father gave him – a book about the Vietnam War that got tossed in unread with his comics and PlayStation controls – inscribed with a dedication quote from Confucius: “A man without history is a tree without roots.” Now in his late 20s, death convinces Tran to meet his surviving extended family after both his grandmothers die within months of each other, each on either side of the world. “There’s a lot about your parents you don’t know,” his paternal grandmother had warned shortly before her passing. “And they won’t be alive forever to answer your questions.”
Page by page, Tran pieces together his extended family’s violent, brutal past on both sides of a moving border that divided a war-torn Vietnam and what they had to do to survive, how his parents, three older siblings, and grandmother were able to narrowly escape the devastating Fall of Saigon in April 1975, all the while interweaving his own challenging youth as the youngest son of refugee immigrants who began uncertain new lives in South Carolina and his eventual adulthood as a culturally disconnected young artist. His return ‘home’ to a country and family he’s never met is a revelatory experience, eloquently expressed through vivid, spirited panels filled with memories, dreams, regrets, hopes, and a few answers. Halfway through, Tran’s drawings are interrupted by a single page of collaged photographs that offers a momentary glimpse of his parents’ lives before they were his parents: still-young lovers who have endured so much but seem contentedly unaware of the difficulties and challenges yet to come …
So remember the identical inside and back covers mentioned above? That sameness won’t be an option by the time you reach the final page. As you read from one cover to the other, the portraits at book’s beginning will stop being of strangers from whom you can turn away … after sharing Tran’s illuminating journey, they’ll be just like family, too.
Readers: Young Adult, Adult