Escaping the Tiger by Laura Manivong 2010
IQ "That lopsided ball would always remind him to never give up. To find victory in the most unexpected places. To build himself up, even when the world had forgotten." pg.188
Twelve year old Vonlai leaves his home in Laos with his parents and his older sister Dalah. The Communists have taken over, and Vonlai's parents are unhappy with all their freedoms that have been taken away so they decide to risk crossing the Mekong River into Thailand. Once in Thailand, they enter a refugee camp in the hopes of being able to leave Thailand and go to America or France or any other country that will accept them.
One of the most refreshing things about Escaping the Tiger was that it put a human face on suffering. I think that sometimes books about tragic events make the people who go through them seem like superheroes, they are so strong and brave, with no emotions. I don't think that anyone can go through a tragedy and be completely unselfish and unafraid 100% of the time. The author managed to create a cast of characters that you are rooting for because they go through so much but they are flawed. Vonlai, Dalah and their mother (Meh) each have low spirits at some point. At the refugee camp they barely get anything to eat, Meh manages to make the most out of the little food they get. She also insists that Vonlai look after Dalah and never let her out of his sight. Meh takes care of the family but she also sinks into a depression. Dalah has her ups and her downs, one minute she's enjoying herself with her friends, the next she is listless in bed. Vonlai can act selfish sometimes, but that's a normal thing for a kid. He puts up with all the sacrifices he has to make, but he can only take so much. Vonlai was my favorite character, he was full of hopes and dreams. He wants to go to America and be an architect. I loved that he was so protective of his older sister, even though she resisted his protection, but it was necessary due to Thai guards trying to take advantage of female refuges.
The only thing that struck me as a little odd was Dalah's character. She is described as feisty, but my first impressions of her were that she was a whiner. To me, feisty and whining don't go hand in hand, being feisty is having a lot of spirit and determination. At the beginning of the novel I don't think she really understood the urgency of her family's situation and the danger they were in while trying to escape Laos. Even towards the end of the novel, I didn't love Dalah but I did get a better understanding of her. Dalah couldn't go to school because in the refuge camp, school only went up to sixth grade. Usually I like feisty characters but I guess Dalah just wasn't feisty enough for me. Other than Dalah, I really liked all the other characters (Kavin's story almost made me cry. I love him!), they weren't stock characters. I always thought that life in a refuge camp was hard because of the waiting, I didn't know you couldn't always get an education and never received enough food. It was also dangerous, the guards who were supposed to protect the refugees, were usually the main problem.
Escaping the Tiger tells an important story that isn't well known. The story of the Laotian people and the hardships they face in their Communist home country as well as in the refugee camps is heartbreaking, but the characters in this novel are uplifting. The novel is sprinkled with small happy moments that keep the story from being too bleak. It's slow moving, but never boring since there are many little battles going on. The little details that people might overlook about living in a refugee camp; the feelings of loneliness, selfish and hope that come with the situation are well portrayed. The sometimes selfish actions of the characters are far overpowered by the uplifting actions they do afterwards. This story is even more powerful because it's based on a slightly similar experience the author's husband went though. His story is included in the afterword. They are both amazing stories.
Disclosure: Received from the author. Thank you so much Laura!
PS One of my other favorite lines due to the description "he swallowed the anger, bitter and bleeding in his throat, but the shame showed on him, red across his cheeks, like a stripe of paint marking a forbidden act." (pg.14) Excellent imagery!