The genesis of these eight interrelated stories is the 1975 Operation Babylift, designed to rescue orphans after the fall of Saigon as the evacuating American troops leave Vietnam behind. Phan’s stories weave an intricate tapestry, tracking Kim, an orphan, and three others: Vinh, a gang leader, Mai, another orphan who has long known Kim in foster care, and Huan, who will return to the Vietnam of his birth, hoping for closure.
In a human drama unique to the United States and Vietnam, many of the abandoned children have been fathered by soldiers. Brought to their new country, the refugees attempt to carve out new lives, but remain shackled to the past, isolated, for the most part in an area of Orange Country, California, called “Little Saigon.”
In “Miss Lien,” a child gives birth to a child, recalling her youth during the agony of delivery, the short seasons of careless play on a farm with many mouths to feed. At that time, the guns and bombs are a distant thunder, children not yet afraid. All too soon the war moves closer, families digging bunkers for protection from artillery that lights up the night sky. The farm destroyed, Lien leaves home with her baby to work in the city, unaware that her country is plunging toward a terrible destiny, motherless babies left to their fate.
“We Shall Never Meet,” the title story, introduces Kim, a Babylift orphan who soon finds that each foster home brings a new set of problems, expectations and demands. Newly emancipated, Kim lives with a gang leader, Vinh, who executes home invasion robberies when they need money. Trust does not come easily to the American-raised Kim, but she is drawn to a woman she once tried to rob who has now befriended her and speaks in her native tongue.
Raised in a world of want with meager expectations, Kim gives back in kind when the woman refuses an unreasonable request, setting in motion a terrible revenge. Phan contrasts street life with hardworking residents of Little Saigon in “Visitors”, as people pass their days in hopeful vigilance, avoiding the street-wise young men who prey on their own. Each story fills in another part of the picture, the scant memories of the homeland fused with the harsh reality of life in America: “They wanted to give back their pain.”
Moving between the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the troop withdrawal from the bloody Vietnam war to the crowded streets of Little Saigon two decades later, these characters bear the legacy of a generation born of war - transplanted to a new country, shuffled between foster homes, a hardscrabble mixture of gang violence and quick-witted alliances. The majority of them ghettoized outcasts, this small society is riddled with economic inequality and discontent.
Phan speaks eloquently for those who do not have a voice, their lives marginalized by race and circumstance in a land of plenty. This intimate novel contains a reservoir of hope, an extraordinary and untapped source of human drama.