This is the third in a series of posts about novels for young readers that transport American characters into other cultures and countries. For suggesting this book, thanks to Dr. Genene Meli, curriculum coordinator at Frankford Township School in Branchville, NJ.
We experience Listen, Slowly through the eyes, emotions and — oh, definitely — the attitude of Mai/Mia. She’s Mai at home in California with her Vietnam-native parents, and Mia at school and with best friend Montana, who has boobs when Mia doesn’t and whose crises are about lip gloss and hair braids. Mia wants only to spend the summer orbiting near on a certain boy she’s never actually spoken to, whom she describes only as HIM.
But instead, at the start of summer vacation, author Thanhha Lai transports Mai to Vietnam to accompany her grandmother on a quest to learn the fate of her grandfather, who disappeared during what Mai calls THE WAR. On the plane where we meet Mai, the attitude is at a sulking peak. On this journey with her, we can hope, and it seems possible, that Mai/Mia will open up to her family’s native culture, and that — since THE WAR is involved — she might discover some deep new dimensions of life.
In grandmother Bá’s home village in the north near Hanoi, Bá and Mai are welcomed with feasting and warm, embracive hospitality. Mai responds by teaching local girls how to cut their panties into thongs, even though she herself — “a no-lip gloss, no-short shorts twelve-year-old rocking a 4.0 GPA and an SAT-ish vocab” — doesn’t like thongs. She just doesn’t want to be there, she wants to go home. And whenever she possibly can, she’s texting and Facebook-checking back home, where the busty Montana is full-court-pressing HIM.
The storytelling here isn’t as strong as the cultural immersion, which is quite detailed and very engaging. We can almost taste all the fresh food specialties that Mai eats, and enjoys more and more. But gradually, eventually, Mai, her grandmother and we discover what happened to her grandfather. It is horrifying. A grotesque, unfathomable circle of hell.
We never quite understand, at least I didn't, which side her grandfather was fighting on in the WAR ... but as his awful fate is slowly uncovered, Mai makes a local friend. She comes to appreciate the subtleties of the language. And finally — mostly — she shrugs off the drama and opens herself up to being the companion, helper and granddaughter that Bá needs as the two of them ultimately, heartbreakingly uncover the truth.
Is Mai/Mia transformed? That will unfold over time, in her life. Is she more the whole, bicultural young person she has a right to be? Oh yes.