Butterfly Yellow is a recent novel that tells the story of Hang (hereafter known as H, due to the fact that the proper letters are unavailable), a young woman who immigrates to the United States from Vietnam, a country that – at the time this story takes place – is barely beginning to move forward from war. Six years earlier, as the last Americans left the country, H took a major risk that wrecked her family’s life. H’s younger brother, Linh, was ripped from her arms and put on a plane heading to the United States, leaving H with a Texas address and empty arms. For the next five years, H, her mother and her grandmother plan a rescue mission: a mission to find and save Linh.
Before the war, and the loss of Linh, H’s family was happy and comfortable. Her father loved Clint Eastwood Westerns and encouraged H’s determination to learn English using National Geographic articles and English movies. H’s father died in the war and his death and country-wide economic issues led to a steep decline in the way that H’s family was able to live.
In the summer of 1981, eighteen year old H arrives in the United States, heartbroken and alone. Her arrival comes after an endlessly horrifying journey by boat, followed by months of waiting in another foreign country. She has one simple goal, to find her brother in Amarillo, Texas. Absolutely nothing, including her Uncle and his American-born daughter, will stand in her way. A harrowing and nauseating bus ride, which gives way to a forced ride with a stranger – a young, cowboy-wannabe stranger named LeeRoy – takes H to her destination, only for her to discover an abandoned building and no sign of her beloved brother. The help of a sympathetic Amarillo resident gives H a new lead, and hope that her search is not impossible.
In a blink of an eye, H finds herself working long hours for a grouchy old rancher alongside LeeRoy, desperate for a glimpse of the brother who no longer remembers her. Linh, now named David, is the happy adopted son of a single woman who loves him. David plays sports and has his own horse. He is an American boy, who has no memory of the first five years of his life.
David’s complete rejection of H is devastating, but she is not willing to give up easily. It takes days of close contact with LeeRoy, bountiful and heavy meals, and hours of hard work under the hot sun before H is able to begin to spend time with her brother – a prize only offered after a series of misadventures and amusing events – but in the end she triumphs. As the weeks pass, H realizes that her brother does not need saving. He has a home and a life that he loves, and H simply has to be content with the time that he is willing to share with her.
The long summer days come to an end far more quickly than seems possible and H finds herself at loose ends. She cares deeply about LeeRoy and is finally starting to connect with David, but she has no idea what is next for her. The offer of a gardening job and the opportunity to continue her education, comes like a breath of fresh air for H. She finally has a place to settle (and a visit from LeeRoy to look forward to).
As I finish typing this summary of Butterfly Yellow, I cannot help but see all the places where it has fallen short in conveying the surprising power of this novel. Lai’s prose is solid and clear, laying out exactly what is happening to her characters. The deep sadness of H’s gradually revealed memories is gut wrenching. The beauty of human connection and unlikely friendships is lovingly portrayed through LeeRoy and H’s relationship. The way that Lai uses H’s broken and convoluted English is both confusing and thought-provoking. All of these elements come together to create a novel that is absolutely worth the time spent reading.
My single favorite piece of this story is LeeRoy’s transformation. I have never encountered a normal and perfectly human character that undergoes so much change. We meet him as an annoying boy and fall in love with the good-hearted young man he becomes. All this to say, I am glad that I read Butterfly Yellow and certainly would not mind adding a copy to my personal library, but it is not a new favorite of mine, or a book that I plan to re-visit repeatedly.
Have you read Butterfly Yellow? What is one of your favorite character transformations?