Run Me to Earth, by Paul Yoon

The edges of an active war zone are just as dangerous as the war zone itself, especially during the Vietnam War. The author’s note in Run Me to Earth, by Paul Yoon, explains that more bombs were dropped on Laos during the War than were dropped during World War II. This novel of escape and the desire for reunion begins on Laos’s Plain of Jars, at a makeshift hospital that mostly treats people who are injured by one of the unexploded bombs that cover the Laotian countryside. (Approximately one third did not explode on impact; people are still injured by them to this day.) Teenagers Alisak, Prany, and Noi—all orphans—took jobs as errand runners for the hospital. In one explosive night, they are separated from each other. The rest of the novel explains that twisted routes that the characters take to try and find each other again.

Being young children of war, Alisak, Prany, and Noi manage to find a measure of happiness and comfort at the hospital. They sleep in a tangle of limbs and constantly remind each other to be safe around the bombs. They grow as close as siblings. They’ve matured so much that they’ve taken it on themselves to keep an eye out for the doctor, Vang, who really should be taking care of them. It’s also clear that all three and the doctor are suffering from severe post-traumatic stress. They decide to leave at last after Vang gets so drunk he wanders out on to the plain, where he endangers himself (and Noi, who walked out to retrieve him) among the unexploded ordinance. Vang arranges for a helicopter to lift them out, but things go wrong the night they leave. Alisak, Prany, and Noi are scattered.

Yoon keeps the stories of these tightly focused on the characters experiences as exiles in France, or as prisoners of the Pathet Lao, or as victims of the mindless violence on the edge of the Vietnam War. I liked that this novel because it resisted easy answers and coincidences. It’s not as though the characters suddenly pop up, halfway across the world, to share a cup of coffee and catch up. Finding news of each other means following rumors, hoping that no one has changed their names, and that they can catch up before their target moves on. Run Me to Earth felt more realistic than that. Everything is a fight and nothing turns out as expected. Because of this, I felt that it honored the sacrifices and hardships of people who did everything they could to escape from Laos in the 1960s and 1970s.

So often, the story of the Vietnam War is told from the perspective of the American soldiers who fought there. We Americans hear a story of politicians throwing away lives in Vietnam, in a misguided effort to keep southeast Asia from falling to the Communists. Then we hear of their return to a divided country and their suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. We rarely hear about what happened to the Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian people who were injured and killed while the Americans, French, and North Vietnamese found back and forth across the peninsula. Run Me to Earth, with its close perspective that fleetingly references the Domino Theory, serves as a heartbreaking reminder of the collateral damage of war.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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