An unlikely romance tinged by tragedy makes Butterfly Yellow a winning read for mature teens.
Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai. Harper, 2019, 284 pages.
Reading Level: Teen, ages 15-18
Recommended for: ages 16-up
In the final days of the Vietnam War, Hằng, with the blessing of her parents and grandmother, carried her five-year-old brother Linh to the airport hoping to pass as orphans and be airlifted to the United States. Only Linh was taken—literally torn from his sister’s arms and carried, kicking and screaming, to the plane. Hằng was left with a card on which was written an address in Amarillo, Texas. With the Vietcong closing in on Saigon, her prospects were not bright.
Now, six years later, after years of deprivation and memories she dare not recall, Hằng is finally on her way to Amarillo. After reuniting with her uncle in Dallas, she sneaks away on a bus to track down her brother. At the same time, another restless 18-year-old is on his way up from Austin: Lee Roy, a would-be cowboy intent on meeting up with his rodeo hero Bruce Ford. His path collides with Hằng’s, and, however reluctantly, he feels himself duty-bound to escort her to her destination. And afterward be on his merry way, with the strange, snappish Vietnamese girl a distant memory. Of course, it doesn’t work out that way.
This is classic rom-com material: two disparate personalities meet and dislike each other on sight, but in pursuit of some mutual goal they find themselves attracted. There’s more to it than that, namely Hằng’s tragic past, which emerges over time. LeeRoy mostly has frustrations, but under his bluster and comic posing is a genuinely kind person, a landing place for Hằng’s brokenness. Though they’re too young to hook up, or even kiss, by the end of the novel it’s clear they have a future together, however that unfolds. Their story is not just a sweet, prickly romance, but also an illumination of living beyond tragedy and finding joy in unexpected places. As in the author’s earlier novels about Vietnam refugees (Inside Out & Back Again and Listen, Slowly), the writing is beautiful and the depths exquisitely drawn in telling detail.
- The story is told in alternating voices, and LeeRoy’s is peppered with mild profanity. “Mild” meaning the d-word and h-word, and the occasional “God Almighty,” usually referring to God Almighty. Some of this is posing: LeeRoy has broken away from his intellectual parents to pursue his own life, and is trying on a bit of tough-guy talk for size.
- Hằng has experienced harrowing situations in her escape from Vietnam, which may be troubling to sensitive readers. (No rapes, thankfully)
- Religion is not a big factor but, as in the author’s previous novels, Christian characters are treated with respect.
Overall Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)
- Worldview/moral value: 3.75
- Artistic/literary value: 5
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The experience of one airlifted Vietnamese orphan is told in Last Airlift. For true (and gritty) stories about refugees and survival under evil regimes, see our reviews of Never Fall Down (Cambodia) and Every Falling Star (North Korea).