Review by William Peter Grasso
Title: ACROSS THE MEKONGRIVER,
Author: Elaine Russell
Working at a US airline in the late 1970s, it was not uncommon to see multi-generational groups of bewildered Southeast Asian refugees—entire families, onlookers supposed, from grandparents to great-grandchildren—being ushered to connecting flights for American cities offering sponsored residence. From the terrified looks on their faces, they might as well have just landed on the moon. I could only try to imagine the tragic upheavals that had necessitated their exodus to this new and strange life on the other side of the world, as the US offered asylum to those allies it had once fostered, then abandoned, as its Southeast Asian anti-communist adventure collapsed.
Elaine Russell’s moving and well-crafted novel, Across the Mekong River, fills in the details as my imagination never could. We follow the travails of a Hmong family named Ly—daughter Nou, our story’s focal point, father Pao, an ex-officer of the Royal Lao Army, and mother Yer—as they, along with a bevy of Nou’s siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins, flee their agrarian life in Laos to avoid communist re-education camps or death at the hands of the Pathet Lao. After the calamitous crossing of the MekongRiver that inspires the book’s title, they come to the first stop in their new life as refugees: a squalid refugee camp in Thailand.
After several years in the camps, the Ly family is finally offered sponsorship in the US and find themselves in the alien, snowy winter of Minneapolis. There, they suffer the first of many affronts to traditional Hmong culture: the American immigration bureaucracy has modified the spelling of their surname from Ly to Lee. Ms. Russell effectively displays the mix of hope and exhaustion as Pao struggles at multiple low-paying jobs to support his growing family, while harboring for his children the American dream of success through academic excellence. Yet he adheres to the rigid tenets of traditional Hmong patriarchy, expecting Nou to fulfill the subservient role expected of all Hmong women. Pao is blind to the shattering conflict this cultural dichotomy will inevitably produce.
Nou, however, is not so blind. The family has relocated to Sacramento, California, returning with some small success to its agricultural roots. Now in high school, her wish to live an American life takes unmistakable form: without her parents’ knowledge, she adopts the name Laura at school. Laura has become a superb student with excellent college prospects—fulfilling at least that part of her father’s dream—but desperately craves social acceptance as an American teenager. With this craving comes the desire for independence, the yearning to be free of the traditional subservience demanded of Hmong women. These are aspirations her father’s orthodoxy can never permit, as Laura knows all too well. The crisis foreshadowed in the opening chapter erupts in a California courtroom with a heart-wrenching tangle of emotions that are wincingly painful and all too real.
The story is very effectively told from the alternating, first-person points of view of Pao, Yer, and Nou/Laura. The POV shifts are effortless and never distract the reader. The editorial presentation is nearly flawless. I must, however, take issue with one of Ms. Russell’s artistic choices. On two occasions in the story, we are confronted with interacting characters having the same given name. First, we have Pao (Ly Pao, the fictional father), being discussed in the same breath as Pao, an actual Laotian Army general (full name Vang Pao). It takes a moment, but the reader overcomes the resulting confusion. Later, we are confronted by a conversation between Yer, Nou’s mother, and Yer, a cousin. This confusion, too, passes quickly and for the remainder of the book Cousin Yer is mercifully referred to as just that. I fully respect the depth of cultural understanding that may have driven Ms. Russell to assign the fictional names in this manner, but I question the choice from a reader’s perspective nonetheless.
Ms. Russell has a gift for simple yet beautiful descriptive passages. One of my favorites: as Yer (the mother, not the cousin) tries to snatch back fading memories from the heavens, Russell writes, “Only the nothingness of clouds met my touch.” There are many more expressions of equal beauty to be found throughout her work.
Speaking of written beauty, I found the conclusion of Across the Mekong River as surprising as it was delightful. In a wise, final touch, Ms. Russell leaves one big question unanswered. The effect of those last sentences takes your breath away.