Run Me to Earth by Paul Yoon
(Simon and schuster, New York, 2020, ISBN #978-1-5011-5404-1)
Review by Joanne Rhim Lee (Summer 2020 issue)
In a quiet college town in upstate New York, a Laotian immigrant family runs a Vietnamese restaurant. Why Vietnamese, one might ask, and not Laotian? The daughter of the immigrants easily answers that question: “No one would eat there if we called it a Lao restaurant.” Like its cuisine, the Laotian civil war that took place in the 1960s, is often overshadowed by its neighbor Vietnam to the east. However, Laos takes center stage in Paul Yoon’s Run Me to Earth, a collection of six connecting short stories.
Laos also has a unique modern history; it was engaged in a parallel conflict at the same time as the Vietnam War, in which the Communist Pathet Lao fought the Royal Lao Government. As the main goal of the U.S. was to “contain” the spread of communism in Asia, the CIA supported the Royal Lao Government, which carried out relentless bombing missions to prevent the advance of the Pathet Lao. The U.S. also supported its transport of troops and supplies from North Vietnam to South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which cut through Laos to a great extent. Yoon writes in his Author’s Note:
These bombing missions would last nine years (from 1964 to 1973) and would end up totaling more than 580,000. This is the equivalent of one bombardment every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. Over two million tons of ordnance were dropped on Laos – more than was dropped on both Germany and Japan during the Second World War.
This backdrop of history is integral to the breathtaking Run Me to Earth, which takes place over a span of 25 years. When the story begins in 1969, three teenage orphans are living in a makeshift hospital in an abandoned farmhouse in Laos, doing non-age-appropriate work as medical assistants, motorbike couriers, and land-mine detectors. Alisak and Prany are both 17, and Prany’s younger sister Noi is 16. Their families used to live next door to each other, but when all of their parents became victims of the war several years earlier, the three pre-teens wandered the streets together, looked for food, work, and shelter, and found comfort in their shared existence.
Even though the walls around them are literally crumbling down at times, Yoon infuses these early scenes with a sweet innocence. The pre-historic Plain of Jars, where Hmong soldiers fought with the CIA against the Pathet Lao, provides a mystery for the trio: Were these giant jars used to make wine for warriors, or left by aliens who would someday return? At night when the stars come out, they play a game where they tell each other where they go at night in their dreams: A Bedoin desert, a museum in Paris, or an endless beach.
The fourth main character is a doctor from Vientiane named Vang, who takes the trio under his wing at the makeshift hospital, showing them how to dress wounds, administer morphine, and during the few downtimes, how to speak and conjugate French verbs and play the old piano left in the farmhouse. Though Vang is in his 30s, he sees Alisak, Prani, and Noi as his kindred spirts, and when push comes to shove, will do anything to save them. In exchange for their assistance, he hints that they may be evacuated with him to France or Thailand when the war is over.
The war in Laos was certainly no fairy tale, and Yoon does not attempt to sugar-coat it. The French, who colonized Laos and all of Indochina in the late 19th century and held on for dear life during the first French-Indochina War during the decade after WWII, left deep scars of colonization in their wake. The farmhouse where Vang and the teenagers live and work once belonged to a wealthy French captain, who retired to Laos after World War II and grew rich from cultivating the tobacco fields around the property.
The former owner outfitted the house with beautiful furniture and paintings, and held lavish parties for his countrymen and the elite locals. While out driving one day, he met the trio of pre-teens, and asked if Noi would like to come to the house to assist at one of his parties. Noi, who was only 12 at the time, was lured by the idea of being paid enough in one evening to feed them for a month.
Though Alisak, Prany, and Noi are penniless orphans, Yoon does not condescend and depict them as worthless derelicts, but as deep, soulful individuals. They may have very little to call their own, but they do have hopes and sweeping dreams. Yoon documents their quiet, poetic movements, such as Noi’s twisting of the mysterious ring on her finger when she is nervous or agitated, and how Alisak watches her do it while she sleeps, wondering what happened that night when the Frenchman took her back to the big house. Noi is also no weak damsel in distress, but a whip-smart girl and a much better motorbike rider than her brother and Alisak. Still, she often lets the boys lead, pretending she is doing her best to keep up: “Some sense of courtesy or humor alive even in all this.”
In the harrowing hospital scenes, the trio display great compassion and humanity, with maturity far beyond their years. One woman came in with both her legs blown off, and as they dressed her wounds and administered morphine, she dreamily told them that she sold sturdy and beautiful baskets in the marketplace, and asked them if they would like a discount. “Yes,” Noi said. “We would like that.”
While reading Run Me to Earth, one cannot help but feel frustration at the futility of the war in Laos, and also the U.S. role in it. As a result of the Geneva Accords in 1954, Laos was declared a neutral nation, off limits to any spillover from the Vietnam War, but of course that was not the case. American and North Vietnamese pilots continued to drop hundreds of thousands of bombs on innocent civilians in Laos, including near the beloved farmhouse. In one scene, as he is tending to his patients in the farmhouse, Vang leans out the window as the valley erupts in fire from the American bombers screaming, “We’re on the same side, you idiots!” In this and other scenes, Yoon depicts the frustration of millions of Lao, Hmong, and Vietnamese who also wanted to scream those words at the U.S.
At the end of the first story (told by Alisak), there is a harrowing and chaotic evacuation scene, reminiscent of the infamous Fall of Saigon. The three teens and others are on their motorbikes, racing to board the last helicopter, Alisak with Vang on the back of his bike, Prany and Noi right behind them. Who will be evacuated, and who will be forced to stay in Laos, perhaps making their way to a refugee camp in Thailand, or safe passage to the U.S.? Will they all make it out alive?
This first section is magical; a master class in writing. Yoon has created compelling characters amidst a fascinating, important historical backdrop, adding suspense and mystery to the mix. After a shocking accident, we must piece together what became of the four main characters, and are introduced to several new characters in the remaining five stories, including the girl Khit who works in her parents’ Vietnamese restaurant in upstate New York in 1994.
At different times, the main characters wonder how their lives would have been different if they had never stepped foot into that farmhouse. Years later, one of them returns and realizes that they are not to blame for anything that happened during the war, because they were only children, after all. War is ugly, but closure brings some relief. In Yoon’s able hands, this story is truly beautiful.
“The truth he knew tonight was that the vehicle that pulled up to recruit them could have been from the other side and they wouldn’t have cared if it meant, on that day, the promise of shelter and food,” Yoon writes. “Because they were children who had nowhere else to go. And because, for what seemed like the first time, the people who had approached them had been kind.”