Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Latehomecomer and Trampoline: children's journeys worth reading

In The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, Kao Kalia Lang recalls how the joy of leaving a Thai refugee camp to come to America was accompanied by grief over her separation from her grandmother. The six-year-old girl settled with her family in Minnesota while her beloved grandmother lived with another branch of the family in California, but they spoke regularly on phone calls interrupted by tears on both ends. "I wanted to believe that the tears would reach her," writes Yang, "but I knew they wouldn't.  Only human beings can reach each other."

Yang's 2008 memoir traces the many obstacles that interfered with human connection in her young life: born to Hmong refugees displaced from their home, shifted to another camp in preparation for the move to America, moved from school to school in search of one that would accept students learning English as a second language, taking on adult responsibilities at a young age so her parents could work nights. The one thing that remains constant through all these upheavals is an urgent need to reach across distance to stay close to her family and establish a sense of home far from the lands from which the Hmong were displaced.

Keeping the family connected in America requires money, and nowhere does Yang demonstrate the contradictions of a child's mind better than when she recalls the young immigrant's tortured relationship with cash:
I started dreaming about money, dollar bills that folded into cylinders, looked like trashcans, and rolled around in my head, loud and angry, smooth and gentle. After my dreams, I made decisions. When I grow up, I'm going to have money. When I grow up, I'm going to never need money. When I grow up, I am going to treat money so well that it will always want to stay with me. When I grow up, I'm going to hate money so much that it will be afraid of me and stay away from me. Money was like a person I had never known or a wall I had never breached before: it kept me away from my grandma. I saw no way to climb this wall. Sometimes I thought so much about money that I couldn't sleep. Money was not bills and coins or a check from welfare. In my imagination, it was much more: it was the nightmare that kept love apart in America.
In the end Yang keeps her family close by cramming them all into this slim but satisfying memoir. The subtitle is no accident: this is truly a family memoir, reaching back across generations and forward into the future to situate Yang in the midst of an entire people who "Together...are typing on the keyboards of time." In the closing lines, she urges family members to keep seeking the dreams that unite them, "If not in life, then surely in books."

Another book that brings to light a tale of a youthful displaced person and her problematic family is Trampoline: An Illustrated Novel by Robert Gipe. The narrator is 15-year-old girl Dawn Jewell, who has a dead father, a drug-addicted mother, a whole host of ne'er-do-well aunts, uncles, and cousins, and a grandma who provides a fleeting sense of stability in a chaotic life. Dawn could be a female Huck Finn, except she does her traveling on Kentucky backroads, often in "borrowed" vehicles that come to no good end. And as with Huck, Dawn's voice compels attention:
Mamaw linked her lean arm through mine and told me about growing up on Blue Bear Mountain. Her stories smelled of sassafras and rang with gunfire, and the sound of her voice was warm as gravel in the summer sun, but the stories flitted through my mind and never lit.
Meanwhile, Dawn tries to figure out how her own life story fits into those around her, stumbling into other tales and then finding that she doesn't quite fit. Is she headed for jail or to the governor's office to represent the "face of the future"? How will she make a home for herself among her dysfunctional moonshine-brewing uncles and addicted aunts? And where does the trampoline fit into the puzzle?

The trampoline of the title plays a vital role in the end, but it makes a few minor appearances early, including a charming moment when Dawn's eyes are drawn to an image in an art book: 
I sat staring at a picture of a woman, floating on a cloud held up by a gang of babies. She was dressed in red and blue and reaching for a man looked like her daddy held up in the sky above her like an angel. She was the mother Mary, Jesus's momma, and below was all these beardy guys..., and they was reaching for Mary, trying to get past them babies to grab her and pull her back down.
Dawn knows what it feels like to be torn between conflicting demands, between loyalty to family and commitment to pursuit of a different calling, but she perceives Mary's ascension not as a final triumph but as a brief moment of stasis within a continuous up-and-down journey, as if Mary were bouncing on "God's trampoline." Gipe keeps readers in suspense as to where Dawn's up-and-down journey will lead her, but the character is so delightfully original that I had to keep following. 

Gipe's clever illustrations add another layer of interest to the adventure, serving not so much as postcards along the journey but as external emblems of Dawn's inner turmoil. Never has scribbled hair been so expressive. Yang's memoir, meanwhile, is illustrated with family photographs in which fragility and strength mingle in equal measure. Side by side, Gipe's drawings of Dawn and Yang's family photos stare at us with eyes that know suffering and displacement but nevertheless testify to a strength that will not be thwarted.


Bardiac said...

Kalia Yang has just published another book, The Song Poet, about her father's song poetry (it totally makes sense in the Hmong context). Better yet, she's a brilliant teacher and speaker if you can get her to visit your school and talk with your students and colleagues.

Bev said...

Our first-year students will be reading Yang this fall, and rumor has it that efforts are under way to lure her to campus. Exciting!

Bardiac said...

Your students, if they're anything like ours, will love her! And rightly so! If she comes, do tell her we're friends (though not bloggily, if you know what I mean.)