August 8, 2020: “The Boat” by Nam Le

Saturday’s here, Story366!

Departing Galena soon, everyone kind of doing their thing before we pack up and head out. They boys are scrounging into the breakfast bags for yogurts and muffins. The Karen has gone off to the Ulysses S. Grant house to take in the tour. I’m writing this. It’s been a nice stay in this lovely little town, but I think we’ve shopped in enough kitschy stores for now. We’re headed toward Chicago, to visit with my mom in the back yard for a few hours, the first time we’ll have seen her in nearly a year—I worked my last Cub game in late September, while for everyone else, it’s actually been over a year. We need some Grandma Dolly time, even if it’s far away, for just a little bit.

For today’s entry, I read a couple of stories from Nam Le‘s collection, The Boat, originally out in 2008 and released in America by Vintage in 2009. Le is a Vietnamese-born, Australian-raised writer who has worked as a corporate attorney and has also attended the University of Iowa Workshop, so he’s been around. His travels are reflected in this collection, as the stories take place all over the world, and cover various eras in time as well. This book was widely celebrated upon its release, yet here I am, just having gotten to it today. Yet again, Story366 puts me on course, getting me in touch with this debut.

“Hiroshima” is the first story I read, from the perspective of a fourth-grade Japanese girl, Mayako, a girl living in the titular city right before the devastating nuclear attack. The city is completely unaware, of course, of the magnitude of the forthcoming attack. Everyone is already on high alert, anyway, it being World War II. Everyone in Mayako’s family doing their part to either contribute to the war effort or protect themselves from the bombings. Mayako is attending a makeshift school in a temple, while her older sister, just two years ahead of her, is already being called to civil service. It’s a tense time for Mayako and her family, and they don’t know what’s coming, what we as readers all know—neat trick by Le, and historical fiction, giving us even more anticipation of a doom than the involved parties.

The title story is a whopper, forty-three pages, but read like four. This is another tense story, though in a different way. This one features Mai, a sixteen-year-old girl from South of Vietnam after it’s not South Vietnam anymore, but Vietnam again, the Communists having won the war. Southern loyalists are experiencing tough times, some blowback for their false allegiance, such as Mai’s father, who spent two years in a “reeducation camp.” The story begins shortly after he’s released, blind now, the situation only getting worse for Mai’s family.

It starts there chronologically, anyway, as first we’re on the boat. Mai is a refugee, running from her own country, her mother having given her everything they had to ensure her passage on this boat, a flimsy fishing vessel carrying too many people—in fact, it’s twice the normal load of refugees, the second boat in the party having sunk right before they were to leave. So, people are strewn about the deck and below, jammed in so tightly, they barely move when a storm hits. The first part of the story takes us through this storm—several people are washed overboard—then Le steps back, shows us Mai’s backstory. The piece goes back and forth like that throughout, alternating between the present narrative in the boat and how Mai came to be aboard. Good narrative structure, good tension, good rate of reveal, good everything.

The journey is a nightmare. Everyone believed it was supposed to take two to three days, but that comes and goes and they’re nowhere close. After a week, when rations start to run out, including water, people get sick, people die. The sun is merciless on the deck and the hold down under is an oven, filled with death and vomit. Nobody knows when they’ll arrive, or if—people are dying steadily. On top of all this, sharks have begun following them, devouring any bodies thrown over the side almost instantly, suicides even faster—there are quite a few people giving up, throwing themselves over the rail.

It’s a good thing Mai has befriended Quyen, a woman not much older than her who has six-year-old son, Truong. The three work together, support each other, helping to make it through. Mai starts to worry about Truong’s whereabouts on the ship as if she’s his mother. In fact, when Quyen is incapacitated, Mai steps in as a proxy-mom, or as the story puts it, his chi, or older sister. This is especially meaningful to Mai, as she left a little brother, the same as Truong, back in Vietnam when she made her escape.

I don’t want to give up any more of the story, as I’ve given a pretty good overview already—Mai leaves her family in Vietnam, the voyage is awful, a lot of the refugees die, but Mai finds new friends, new family, in Quyen and Truong. To give away the ending—do they make it?!—would be giving away too much. Read it for yourself—it’s more than worth your time.

The Boat is one of those books I should have read a long time ago, though I’ve at least gotten a feel for it now, have come to understand what Nam Le does, why he received all those accolades. This is a book created by a serious talent, one who seems to know exactly how to write a grand story, of grand scale, of grand stakes, and of grand results. The stories don’t only tell these characters’ stories, but much larger stories on the whole, the kind of book that feels important, and has the makeup to prove it.