Running Toward the Guns by Chanty Jong

Running Toward the Guns: A Memoir of Escape from Cambodia (McFarland, 167 pp., $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle) is a sleeper. At first glance it seems to be a pleasant little book that recounts, in almost transcription-from-interview prose, an eight-year-old girl’s escape from Cambodia in 1975. But soon the reader realizes that nothing pleasant happened to Chanty Jong after she was taken by the murderous Khmer Rouge and forced to endure what became a holocaust against the Cambodian people.

Jong’s father was an elementary school principal in Phnom Penh. She was in the third grade and just learning to read. That meant she was on the way to joining a learned family in the eyes of the Khmer Rouge, who were wreaking havoc on the Cambodian people during the infamous Pol Pot regime.

The descriptions of her tribulations written by Jong with the help of her American family physician, Lee Ann Van Houten-Sauter, are graphic in their details of the violence and the jungle camps where she was forced to work as child slave laborer, building roads by hand, as well as the areas she fled through as she made her way to a refugee camp in Thailand. She survived there for months until an interview with a UN aid official afforded her the opportunity to emigrate to America.

During her captivity, the Khmer Rouge camps were overrun by Heng Somren fighters, supported by the Vietnamese. During one raid Jong ran toward the oncoming troops through a hail of bullets in an effort to escape the Khmer Rouge, a act that gives the book its title.

Learning English was always one of the her goals, yet she arrived in the U.S. with the barest knowledge of vocabulary or grammar. She began studying the language in earnest after she arrived. Jong came to the realization, through meditation and self-examination, that all was not right within her psychologically. She describes the best self-diagnosis of intense PTSD I’ve ever read.

In the last 50 pages of this book, Jong takes the reader through the memories and mental jungles that have populated her sleep—and nearly every waking moment. She also describes her therapeutic use of deep meditation, grounding techniques, identifying triggers, compartmentalizing, and memory confrontation.

Even with a few grammatical and punctuation errors, this book offers a true, self-help opportunity for struggling survivors of most traumatic events—not just the horrors of war. This small book also was a pleasure to read—and to experience.

–Tom Werzyn

Soles of a Survivor by Nhi Aronheim

Nhi Aronheim’s Soles of a Survivor: A Memoir (Skyhorse, 288 pp. $24.99, hardcover; $16.99, Kindle) is a worthy autobiography. In it, Aronheim tells the story of her escape from post-war Vietnam and resettlement and eventual success in the United States. Aronheim, who fled her native country in 1987 when she was 12 years old, shows herself to be a motivated, highly driven individual.

She was born into a large, prominent family near Da Nang. Her father was a respected physician who also treated injured American troops during the war.

When communist forces took control of the entire country in the spring of 1975, her father was taken to a re-education camp and soldiers marched through the family’s well-appointed home taking anything of value. They said that under Communism everyone was equal and no one should have too much wealth. Eventually, the father left the family and Aronheim, her mother, and her siblings were forced to leave their home.

As the family was about to be sent to a re-education camp, her mother bribed a bus driver to take them to Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. Arriving with only the clothes on their backs, they lived illegally in one room. Aronheim earned money for the family by selling counterfeit cigarettes.

Her mother longed for the opportunity for the family to escape, but knew it would be too difficult to attempt it as a group. So, in total secrecy, she helped her twelve-year-old daughter cross the border into Cambodia with the hope of getting to America. At this point in the memoir, we have reached the end of the first chapter, with nineteen more to go.

The book’s title is how Aronheim’s husband refers to her feet as a result of all the walking she did during her escape. It was a harrowing experience, during which, she says, she found herself “staring down death time after time,” and that each time was “as terrifying as it was the first time.” She spent time in a refugee camp in Thailand, and remembers watching showings of “ET” and “The Sound of Music” without her or anyone around her understanding what was going on.

Nhi Aronheim

Against heavy odds, this young woman managed to make it out of the refugee camp and fly to the U.S. where she thrived academically and went on to good jobs in telecommunications and the mortgage industry, and then became a wife and mother. This book celebrates a life of achievement that started in most unlikely fashion.

More and more stories are now being told by Vietnamese refugees who have made the best they could of their lives while also helping make America a better place to live. Nhi Aronheim says she hopes her book will encourage readers “to never give up, never give in, and always stay positive.”

Examples of how she lived that philosophy can be found on nearly every page of this inspiring book.

The author’s website is nhiaronheim.com

–Bill McCloud

Snow’s Kitchen by Amy M. Le

Snow’s Kitchen: A Novella and Cookbook (Quill Hawk Publishing, 262 pp. $34.99) is Amy Le’s delightful wrap-up of a trilogy of autobiographical fictional tales telling the story of her family’s escape from Vietnam after the end of the American war and the challenges they faced resettling in the United States. Snow is Amy’s mother’s name, which explains the intriguing title of her debut novel, Snow in Vietnam. That first novel tells the story of her mother’s difficult life in Vietnam and the harrowing escape she made with Amy, who is called Dolly, and a young nephew.

The second novel, Snow in Seattle, begins in 1980, six months after the end of the first one. Snow in Seattle finds the small family dealing with the Pacific Northwest weather, American TV shows, and the idea of always-plentiful food. Seeing our country through the eyes of these new arrivals allow American readers to see ourselves in new ways.

Amy Le says she wrote Snow’s Kitchen in one month. I can believe it because of the natural flow of the story as it unfolds. She’s not sitting down at her writing table trying to make things up; rather, she’s relating things as she mostly recalls them. Le wrote the first two novels as a way of honoring her mother, who died of cancer in 2017. This work is intended to honor her mother’s love for food by sharing her recipes, which drew from cultures of the East and West.

In this book Amy, now going by the name “Christine,” moves through adolescence. Here are the book’s first two sentences: “The first boy I ever kissed was named Dung. Let that marinate for a second.”

Her mother has remarried and the family has moved to California. Her mom delightfully pronounces “ugly” in three syllables, “uh-guh-lee,” and once when excited she exclaimed, “Oh. My. Good. Nest!”

But all is not well in Christine’s teen life. She succumbs to peer pressure and her mother wants her to improve her “broken Vietnamese.” But the most serious issue is her relationship with the new stepfather.

Amy Le

He barges into her bedroom without knocking, reads her diary, and calls her vile names. “I hated being Vietnamese then,” she writes. “Our society was built upon the stupid, patriarchal, male-chauvinistic belief that the man was in charge. A woman’s role was to be obedient, subservient, and cater to her husband. I denounced my ethnicity, my Vietnamese name, my language, and everything that was associated with the culture.

“In feeling that way, I also inadvertently denounced everything that Mama represented, everything that she was, and I hurt her more than I understood.”

Amy Le maintains a consistent voice in all three books, as she continues to show her mastery of realistic dialogue. To get the most from this book I recommend first reading the first two in order. All three are great to share with family members and very much suitable for book clubs.

As a bonus, Le includes more than 100 pages of recipes with photographs.

Amy Le’s website is amy-m-le.com

–Bill McCloud

Prisoner of Wars by Chia Youyee Vang

Learning intimate facts about how other people live is an enlightening experience. Once again, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee history professor Chia Youyee Vang fulfills that promise with Prisoner of Wars: A Hmong Fighter Pilot’s Story of Escaping Death and Confronting Life (Temple University Press, 168 pp. $74.50, hardcover; $24.95, paper and e book).

Although the book’s title highlights prison life, only one chapter is devoted to that experience. The book’s theme primarily deals with Pao Yang—who helped Professor Yang with the book—and his family’s survival under constant hardships. “A core condition among human beings across time and place is that of suffering,” Vang says.

This is her fifth book about the Hmong diaspora, preceded by Hmong in Minnesota (2008); Hmong America: Reconstructing Community in Diaspora (2010); Claiming Place: On the Agency of Hmong Women (2016); and Fly Until You Die (2019).

She excels at storytelling by incorporating pieces of interviews verbatim into her narrative, a technique that amplifies the emotional impact of the speakers. With Prisoner of Wars, she uses Pao Yang’s words to attain a new height of emotional insight. “What you will read are my truths,” Pao Yang says. Quotations tirelessly gathered by Vang from Paos Yang’s family members and friends strengthen his recollections from the past.

Capt. Pao Yang flew hundreds of close air support missions in T-28D fighter-bombers in Laos for Gen. Vang Pao. Shot down and captured in June 1972 at the age of 24, he was listed as missing in action. When he failed to return home following the signing of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, his family decided that he had been killed in action. A botched prisoner exchange allowed the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to hold Pao Yang as a slave laborer until October 1976.

Chia Youyee Vang

The decision to classify him as KIA deeply affected his family. His wife grieved, remarried, moved to the United States, and left their son in Laos.

Once he was finally released Pao Yang faced drama after drama: reuniting with his mother and son, a second marriage, a dangerous escape from Laos to Thailand, deprivation in a refugee camp, eventual entry to the United States, and a free life of hard work, low paying jobs, failed businesses, and illness in a foreign land. Sorrow accompanied the joy he found.

I have read similar tales, but none as intriguing as this one.

Many Americans might classify Prisoner of Wars as another reflection of the intricacies of America’s so-called Secret War in Laos. To me, the revelations those interviewed by Professor Vang make the book a valuable narrative about people everywhere who are dispersed worldwide because of war and other conflicts. Uncertain settlement in a foreign land and practically non-existent job opportunities often are lifelong and unwarranted hardships for such migrants.

The story of Pao Yang’s family clearly makes this point.

—Henry Zeybel

Snow in Seattle by Amy M. Le

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Amy M. Le’s Snow in Seattle (Quill Hawk Publishing, 262 pp. $16.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), hardcover; ) is a work of fiction based on a true story that continues the tale she began in her very enjoyable debut novel, Snow in Vietnam. The adventures of members of her family serve as the basis for both novels.

Snow is the name of the main character. Along with her young daughter and teenage nephew, she fled Vietnam a few years after the takeover of the south by communist forces. Snow in Seattle begins about six months after the end of the previous book.

Snow relocates to Seattle after being sponsored by Skyler Herrington and hosted by the First Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Herrington was the best friend of Cpl. Sam Hammond, the American soldier Snow loved in Vietnam. Hammond was killed in action in 1972.  Herrington and Snow are both dealing with PTSD as a result of their experiences in Vietnam. Different ghosts haunt them. As Snow puts it: “I am tired of living within my memories.”

It’s early 1980 and people are still talking about the recent eruption of Mt. Saint Helens. Snow has lots of adjustments to make. There are cold mornings, and for a while she notices she is continuing to eat the plentiful food at the family’s table even after she is full. She eventually needs to get a job and learn to drive so she can get the independence she longs for.

Raising her young daughter and teenage nephew in the U.S., sending them to local schools and watching them play with neighborhood kids, she’s determined to try to instill Vietnamese values, beliefs, and identity into them. “We may be living among the Westerners,” Snow says, “but we must never give up our roots.”

While reading Snow’s story of learning to make a new home in America we have a chance to see the many things that we take for granted. It’s especially notable as the family experiences new foods, American holidays, and sayings that are commonplace but require a serious familiarity with the language to understand. After a year, the family is speaking two languages at home while constantly keeping the television on to continue to learn English.

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Amy Le

What I especially enjoyed about Le’s two novels is her literary mastery of real life. As you read the book’s dialogue it’s as if you’re actually hearing the words with your ears instead of reading them with your eyes. That is a true gift.

Too often, even today, when people say the word  “Vietnam,” they are referring to the Vietnam War. Le’s novels, based on her family’s true story, help American readers see that Vietnam is a country, not a war–and one that many of its people felt forced to flee. It’s the amazing strength of those people that Le illustrates so well in these novels.

The author’s website is amy-m-le.com

–Bill McCloud

American Dreamer by Tim Tran

Tim Tran’s American Dreamer: How I Escaped Communist Vietnam and Built a Successful Life in America (Pacific University Press, 390 pp. $18.99, paper; $12.99, Kindle) is an engaging and very readable book. Tim Tran is the Americanized version of the author’s Vietnamese name, Tran Manh Khiem. A first-time author, he has delivered a nice tale.

Tran begins his story—written with Tom Fields-Meyer—as a four-year-old on a U.S. Navy boat with his parents as they fled the North Vietnam in 1954. The family eventually settled in Saigon in South Vietnam.

We move with the author through a series of short chapters, few more than four or five pages long, all divided up into eight parts that signal important changes and developments in his life. Each of the chapters could almost stand alone. They are presented as if they were transcribed from a series of after-dinner reminiscences by the author. Tran’s memory of names and dates and places translates into a pleasant progression.

We follow Tran as he moves through school in Saigon with stories about his student shenanigans, then on to a prestigious high school. He applies and is selected for a USAID scholarship to attend college in the U.S. Tran and the woman who would later become his wife were sent to Forest Grove, Oregon, to attend Pacific University.

Tran portrays his life and times as an American university student wonderfully, even with difficulties dealing with cultural and language issues. He transferred to the University of California at Berkeley, and earned a degree in Economics.

Upon his return to Vietnam in the early 1970s, Tran author went to work for Shell, the worldwide oil company. He rose steadily through the ranks, and had attained a good position when the communists took over South Vietnam in 1975. His chapters on life under the communist regime are very revealing to those do not know the harsh deprivations many South Vietnamese were forced to endure under the new regime.

Tim Tran

Tran describes many attempts to escape from Vietnam. He and his family eventually fled by boat to Indonesia in 1979. His stories of the pirates who pillaged the group are particularly graphic.

From an Indonesian refugee camp, Tran Manh Khiem, with his family, was finally able to return to the U.S., where he began life anew and become a successful businessman. He and his wife Cathy (her Americanized name) became U.S. citizens and prospered. In Tran’s final chapters, he writes of his deeply held love for the U.S.

American Dreamer is a well-written memoir that deserves a place on your book shelf.

The author’s website is timtranamericandreamer.com

–Tom Werzyn

A Dangerous Journey from Vietnam to America for Freedom by Tham Huy Vu            

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The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 marked the beginning of the worst years of the life of Tham Huy Vu, who served as a captain in the South Vietnamese Army. Within nine days, the victorious communists marched him into the first of six re-education camps where he would spend five years. Seven years later—on his sixth try—he escaped and found freedom for his family in the United States. Those trials highlight A Dangerous Journey from Vietnam to America for Freedom, 1935-1987 (Xay Dung, 270 pp.; $20, paper).

Born in northern Vietnam in 1935, Vu also provides a history of his country because political  changes strongly affected his family. In his childhood, although his family was “one of the most prosperous in the village,” he says, they suffered under “the harsh rule of the French colonialists.” During World War II, Japanese soldiers destroyed his family’s crops after defeating the French. After the war, France regained control of the nation until the Vietminh of Ho Chi Minh’s communist party prevailed in the French Indochina War in 1954.

Vu’s childhood experiences foreshadowed events for the remainder of his life in Vietnam: He labored in rice fields, was exposed to gunfire when the French made his Vietminh-controlled home area a free-fire zone, witnessed the execution of a landowner by the Vietminh, and attended communist education classes. Facing the threat of the father’s death because he was a landowner, Vu’s family left everything behind in 1955 and fled to Saigon.

Drafted into the ARVN, Vu worked on rural pacification and development. He admits to being “an ordinary military officer” who was “unable to do much to improve things.” He also married and had three children.

As a prisoner of war, he defines “re-education” as revenge for having opposed communism. He shows that the re-education camps consisted of slave labor; starvation; living amid filth; inadequate medical treatment; and repetitive brainwashing classes, essay-writing, and group discussions.

Released from the camps and treated as an outcast, he determined that escape from Vietnam was his only course for a viable life. This led to intrigue and drama that Vu shared with many others desperate to escape from communism.

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Tây Ninh re-education camp, 1976 – Photo by Marc Riboud

Vu expresses eternal love for America for providing a refuge for his family. He wraps up his memoir with a cogent explanation of why the South Vietnamese people lost their freedom. His strongest argument is that American leaders “knew themselves, but knew not enough about their enemies,” combined with his belief that “most South Vietnamese did not know the truth about Ho Chi Minh and his communist comrades.”

He also points out that America “did not have an appropriate strategy”; acted in its own interests; and experienced “a spasm of congressional irresponsibility” following President Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

Vu’s “I-was-there” background and rational approach to an age-old problem refreshed my interest in the unsolvable.

—Henry Zeybel