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Review: Inverting the American war story

“Run Me to Earth” book jacket.
“Run Me to Earth” by Paul Yoon.
(Simon & Schuster)

“Run Me to Earth” is a gorgeous book about the bonds of friendship and the ruptures of war. Even more significantly, in telling the stories of a trio of Laotian teens, it inverts and reorients the American war story.

Like Stephen Crane’s syllabus standard “The Red Badge of Courage,” published in 1895, and Phil Klay’s “Redeployment,” which won a 2014 National Book Award, the most celebrated and consumed wartime novels have focused on American soldiers — conflicted soldiers, perhaps, but soldiers all the same. The only Americans who show up in “Run Me to Earth” are those behind the controls of the helicopters flying overhead, mistakenly bombing their Laotian allies.

Alisak, his friend Prany and his sister Noi are former neighbors, now displaced and orphaned teens. Despite the chaos around them, they run together with the joy and freedom of childhood. We begin in 1969, in the middle of the Vietnam War; Laos had been conscripted into the American plan for Southeast Asia. These friends don’t know much about that; what they do know is the constant threat of hunger, the unexploded ordnance they’ve learned how to dodge and the strength of their alliance.

“They slept like young animals in a den,” Alisak thinks, “and had been doing so for as long as he could now remember. He didn’t know how to tell someone how improbable it seemed to ever want to sleep alone again. The vacancy of it. He had nothing, had always had nothing, but he had them.”

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They’ve holed up in a mansion abandoned by its owner, a Frenchman. The roof now leaks and windows are broken, but paintings hang on the walls and a piano remains, oozing decayed Colonial-era grandeur. Hollywood films about Vietnam and books like Graham Greene’s all too often portrayed white people from the colonial powers in crisp linens trying to hold the line of civilization against the mad, bad jungle; here the madness is theirs, raining from above.
One wing of the house has been taken over by local doctors and nurses, who are using the building as a makeshift hospital. The teens are protected and mentored by one doctor, Vang, who enlists their help, both within the ward and as couriers riding the house’s vintage motorcycles. It’s hard to tell if the trio is brave or just too young to be afraid.

Yoon is a master of subtle storytelling often leaving powerful emotions unexpressed, violent acts undetailed.

Venturing beyond the grand house is dangerous; any lump of dirt could be an unexploded bomb, and most of the hospital’s occupants arrived there after stepping in the wrong place. An evacuation looms; they’re isolated, out of food and subject to constant bombardment.

For those who don’t know about America’s involvement in Laos, which at the time U.S. officials called the “Secret War,” author Paul Yoon provides a thumbnail sketch at the beginning of the book. From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more bombs on Laos than were used against Germany and Japan combined during WWII.

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When they are forced to leave, Noi, Prany and Alisak are split up. One of them gets on a series of planes to France; one is imprisoned in Laos with their doctor friend; the last disappears.

The novel then tracks their diaspora. It seems that luck is with the one who makes it to France, able to make a new life halfway around the world. But is fate playing tricks? The French sponsor is the brother of the man who owned the Laos estate, and he has his own farm in the mountains. Is it possible to be free in a mirror of your own past?

The one who is imprisoned is subject to the terrors of interrogation. Yoon, who won the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award for his novel “Snow Hunters,” is a master of subtle storytelling; he often leaves powerful emotions unexpressed, violent acts undetailed. Much happens in the empty spaces on the page. News that the prisoners have been tortured is delivered secondhand, but the pain they suffer is as indelible as the teens’ friendship once was.

For the one who is missing, readers, like the other members of the trio, may long to know for sure what has happened. Ambiguity is painful, especially to a group who were bound so closely together.

In order to connect the dots, the story grows to encompass a bigger circle. There’s a woman called Auntie who stations herself near the Thai border, shepherding refugees to (relative) safety. A bold girl, Khit, whose mother died in the war, insists on forging a future. A generation passes, time enough for wounds to form a scar. A story that begins intimately at home in Laos becomes a far-flung narrative of diaspora.

This is a new American war story: Focused on the innocents, children subject to American bombings, forced to join a war that had nothing to do with them.

“The vehicle that pulled up to recruit them could have been from the other side and they wouldn’t have cared if it meant, on that day, the promise of shelter and food. Because they were children who had nowhere else to go,” Prany realizes. “And because, for what seemed like the first time, the people who had approached them had been kind.”

These lives cast a shadow, and force a question: What is the result of American military intervention but the fracturing of a whole, injustice, erasure? For these characters, at least, there is the story. And in a story, there is comfort.

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Carolyn Kellogg is the former Books editor of the Times. She can be found @paperhaus on Twitter.

Run Me to Earth

Paul Yoon

Simon & Schuster: 272 pages; $26


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