Elaine Russell’s novel Across the Mekong River (CreateSpace, 238 pp., $12.95, paper), has won four independent book awards. The main character, Laura Nou Lee, escapes from Laos, pursued by the Pathet Lao, with her family, some of who die during the escape. They manage to get to a refugee camp in Thailand where the conditions are miserable. Then they move to ice-cold Minnesota where some family and serious cultural clashes await. Then to Sacramento, California, where other members of their family have leased thirty acres to produce crops to sell to grocery stores and in farmers markets.
Cultural clashes cause big problems in Sacramento when Laura Nou Lee dares to move away from prescribed Hmong expectations by dating a non-Hmong boy and planning to go to college. This results in the entire family ending up in court, with Laura Nou Lee on one side and her father and family on the other. What exactly happened to trigger this court case is kept secret from the reader for much of the book, something I found irritating.
I liked and respected Laura Nou Lee’s father, Mr. Lee, and could not imagine what horrible thing he was capable of doing that could have led to the legal action. The Lee family had “fled the reign of terror the new communist government waged against the Hmong for fighting with the Americans during the Vietnam War,” Russell writes. The Americans left the Hmong “to the mercy of the Pathet Lao,” who showed no mercy and murdered thousands of them. “The life we had once known, no longer existed.”
The novel is told in alternating chapters and alternating voices. At first, the alternating voices and jumps in time caused me minor problems in following the narrative. But once I got into the rhythm of the novel, things became crystal clear—except, that is, for what legal sin Pao Lee, the father, had committed.
Initially, I had problems sympathizing with Laura Nou Lee. I was totally sympathetic to the father, a man who worked hard in America at menial jobs to keep his family together, even though in Laos he was an educated man of distinction, something that did not count in America.
I won’t act as a spoiler and spell out what the legal sin that Laura Nao Lee’s father committed, but I will say that this is an excellent novel to read for anyone who curious about the Hmong people in America and what they have gone through. If Clint Eastwood’s movie Gran Torino made you want more information about Hmong in America, this book goes far deeper and is much more profound.
The novel contains a good deal of detail about the Hmong diaspora, but the effective writing and the strong characters will pull a dedicated reader through. Lots of terrible things happen; this is a novel of great sadness. But some joy creeps in. I am glad I persisted and read to the end.
The author’s website is www.elainerussell.info/index.html