Butterfly Yellow (UQP 2020) by Vietnamese / American Thanhha Lai is an extraordinary own voices story of the trauma of a refugee combined with the unlikely friendship between two young people. Inspired by the author’s own experience of being a refugee, this YA novel tells the tale of Hang, a child who – in the last days of the Vietnam War – takes her even younger brother Linh to the airport in a desperate bid to get away to safety. But while Linh is snatched from her arms and put on a plane, Hang is left behind, too old (at 12) to board. The only clue to her brother’s destination is the card thrust into her hand, which reads ‘Amarillo, Texas’.
When she returns home, her family are determined to locate Linh and reunite the family. It takes Hang six years to find her way to America as a refugee, a difficult and troubled journey during which she suffers terrible trauma. When she finally reaches the USA, she stumbles upon a wannabe cowboy, LeeRoy, who is travelling from the city to attend his dream rodeo. Thrown together by chance, LeeRoy grudgingly assists Hang to get to Amarillo, but when they arrive, she discovers not the small brother she remembers, but an 11-year-old boy, now renamed David, who doesn’t remember her or his family, and who seems quite happy and content with his new life in a new country.
This is a literary novel that quite beautifully expresses the experience of grief and loss through lyrical prose that hides sharp barbs of pain and trauma. Hang’s experiences are subtly hinted at throughout the beginning of the novel, then more closely drawn out towards the end, when we realise the extent to which she has suffered and lost in her quest to rescue her brother. The enormity of her disappointment when she realises that what she has found is quite different to what she set out to look for, is confronting and saddening. So too is the realisation that life doesn’t always work out to plan, even if you have made great sacrifices and overcome huge obstacles to reach your destination.
LeeRoy is a wonderful character in the novel – sharp, witty, funny and warm. He and Hang are polar opposites in almost every way, without even a language in common, and yet they are drawn together. The language in fact was the only aspect of this novel that I found difficult to engage with, and that may obviously be more to do with me as a white reader than the author. But Hang speaks in very heavily accented English, often written phonetically as she would pronounce the words in Vietnamese, and I found it quite jarring to have to keep stopping every few lines and attempt to parse her meaning. No doubt other readers will find this less difficult, but for me, I thought it frequently took me out of the story as I tried to interpret her meaning. In fact language is a subject that is dissected and examined throughout the story, as LeeRoy too struggles with Hang’s words, and as he teaches her ‘conversational English’. Nevertheless, this is a well-written and engaging novel that offers much to YA readers in terms of the refugee experience.
Butterfly Yellow is dedicated: ‘In memory of the unknowable number of refugees at the bottom of the sea’ and is an exquisitely painful reminder of the anxiety and trauma faced by people fleeing for their lives and the risks they take. But it is also a book of courage, hope and humour, and the indomitable optimism of the human spirit.