THE WAR ORPHAN by Rachel Anderson (Oxford University: $13.95; 256 pp.; age 12 up).
If you can possibly slip this onto your teen’s summer stack of romances and hulk adventures, do so, please. “The War Orphan” is not a pretty story with an antiseptic plot, but it is a terrific example of realistic fiction, the kind likely to make your heart pound, make you furious, make you cry. It will even make you think.
The setting is contemporary England, where for many the Vietnam War is neatly tucked away into history books and newsreels. Refugees are being assimilated, orphans adopted. Part One is narrated by Simon, a boy about 12 with a genius IQ who listens to Vivaldi and reads voraciously. As the adored child of Tony and Patti, he lives as a little adult, taking in concerts and after-dinner coffee with them, sharing all family decisions. All except one.
When his parents announce that he is to have a new brother, an adopted brother with dark skin and a childhood so horrifying that he is “different,” Simon asks why. Why do such a thing?
“Collective guilt,” his father tells him. “We may not actually be guilty (about the war), but we’re all responsible.” Soon Nguyen Thanh Ha moves in, a large awkward Vietnamese boy, the orphan they call Ha.
Simon immediately yearns for the days when he and his parents were an affectionate threesome. What troubles him is Ha’s “wetting, the dribbling, the stupid, aimless playing with bits of string, the staring vacantly into space with his mouth open, the sneaky pinching at my skin with his horrible yellow fingernails.” After school one day, Simon discovers the terrible thing done to his cat by Ha, and his disgust turns into a silent hatred.
Part Two is Ha remembering his birth family and their peaceful village before the fields were shelled by fighter planes, and then the relocation camp where his people sank into despair. “The soldiers had seemed so big and menacing when they streamed out of their helicopters. Now, closer to, they were young and jittery, and uncertain what they were to do. They were rough with us.” Ha’s thoughts are intelligent and lucid.
But when he attempts speech, we hear only slobbery pidgin; we see a 12-year-old boy in diapers and bib. This contrast is all the more heartbreaking because we can feel an effect of war, the before and after of one child. As the bond between Simon and Ha grows into tender brotherhood, we have a lump in the throat all the way.
The author does an outstanding job with dialogue, from the clipped vernacular of the British tot to the “Hey, Joe” slang of our GIs. Americans might stumble over some of the English expressions: queue up; music headcans; a baby’s nappies and pushchair; pounds instead of dollars. The main confusion though is when the narrative shifts from present to past. Simon has flashbacks to Vietnam which make you wonder if he too was adopted, if he’s merely fantasizing or if he’s psychic. As long as Ha sleeps in the bunk below his, Simon dreams vividly of Ha’s past, but it’s unclear if it’s osmosis or if the boys are actually talking.
Still we should be indebted to Rachel Anderson for reminding us that battles don’t end just because the bombs are silenced. In 1975 there were believed to be 800,000 abandoned children in Saigon, many of them fathered by Americans and many now adopted into families we know. “The War Orphan” is a powerful tool to help teens--adults, too--better understand our culture, to care about those who are different. “It’s what happens to other people, what you only hear about, that hurts most of all.”