Run Me to Earth by Paul Yoon: A review

I was not familiar with author Paul Yoon before I read this book. I'm sure I had probably heard of him before but the information had not stuck with me. As I read the book, I thought he must be from Laos or he must at least have a familial connection to that country. Imagine my surprise when I finished the book and read his biography to learn that he was actually born in New York City! He has no connection to Laos. His cultural heritage, through his grandfather, is Korean. His grandfather was a refugee from North Korea who settled in South Korea and established an orphanage there. 

Score another one for the imagination of the writer. He has used that imagination to create a believable tale that begins in Laos in the late 1960s in the midst of the country's civil war. It was, of course, also the time during which the United States was involved in a war in Vietnam. Laos was collateral damage in that war as U.S. planes bombed the country repeatedly. Unexploded ordnance from those cluster bombs littered the countryside, presenting a lethal hazard long after the bombing stopped.

It is in the middle of this brutal reality of war that we meet three teenage orphans: Noi and Prany, sister and brother, and their friend, Alisak. They are trying to stay alive in a half-destroyed house that had been converted into a makeshift field hospital. There they met Vang, a doctor who is totally dedicated to helping the war-wounded at any cost. The three children were pressed into service as motorcycle couriers, picking up medicine and supplies and occasionally the wounded and delivering them to the hospital. To do this, they must navigate through fields littered with unexploded bombs and sometimes as more bombs are falling from the sky. The sense of incredible danger is palpable and as I read I literally sometimes felt as if my heart was in my throat.

As the situation continues to deteriorate, the patients at the hospital who can be moved must be evacuated by helicopter. Those that are unable to be moved have to be left behind in a decision that is absolutely excruciating for Vang and for the reader. Vang also arranges for Noi, Prany, and Alisak to be evacuated on the last helicopters that pick up passengers.

The horror of the situation is interspersed with memories of tenderness and selflessness that sustain Prany in particular as he and Vang end up in a long imprisonment in a "reeducation" center, another scene of torture and brutality. Prany remembers his father, a "secret poet" who had a love of writing. He remembers his father's eyes and the touch of his hand. He also recalls a farmer who once picked up a live grenade to shield Prany, Noi, and Alisak from certain death and how the farmer's shirt billowed out with the impact of the detonation. Prany, as are other characters, is driven to acts of violence by the war, but even the war's worst excesses cannot snuff out his memory of what it was to be loved.  

Alisak, meanwhile, has ended up in France following his evacuation. He is settled in a farmhouse there that is owned by a man with links to Laos, actually the brother of the man who owned the house that had been converted into a field hospital where Alisak had worked during the war. In his new life, Alisak continues to help others recover from injury and attempts to settle in his new home. He is haunted by the loss of his friends and his country and he's never able to really feel that he belongs. 

This is where a woman named Khit, who had known Alisak and the others in Laos during the war, tracks him down many years later. She had been living as an immigrant to America. Other characters that we met in Laos have settled in Spain and France. We follow their history through the years right up almost to the present day and through them we come to understand the complete and lifelong devastation wreaked by war on those who must suffer through it and who are displaced by it.

This is a wrenching and eloquent meditation on the effects of violence on the life of the individual. It is a novel not easily forgotten, certainly one of the very best I have read so far in 2020.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Comments

  1. I'll be keeping a look out for this author. Thank you for such a lovely review.

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    1. It is a wonderful book with memorable characters. I hope it finds a wide audience.

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  2. It is great to find a new author and then be able to rate his book 5 of 5 stars. It seems interesting too.

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    1. Well, new to me anyway. This is actually his fifth book and he has won awards before. I hope he wins some for this one.

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  3. This sounds well worth the read. Much to little attention is paid to Laos and its people. The plot sounds harrowing. The characters sound interesting. I would like to read this.

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    1. It is harrowing but deeply rewarding. I think you might find it interesting, Brian.

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  4. I think you might have put Paul Yoon on the map for me. I have not read him before. I will keep him in mind.

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    1. I'm curious about his earlier books. I believe there are four of them. I might add one or more to my TBR list.

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  5. Run Me to Earth by Paul Yoon sounds like an amazing read. I like authors that can make the reader feel like they are in the thick of things.

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  6. Glad you found such a wonderful read and that you enjoyed it so thoroughly. Great review.

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    1. It's always like receiving a wonderful gift when one finds such a book that is both informative and emotionally satisfying.

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