September 27, 2016

Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy’s Story of Survival

by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch with Tuan Ho
Illustrated by Brian Deines
Pajama Press
40 pp.
Ages 6+
September 2016

Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch has a proclivity for telling stories of historical fiction that are rarely addressed in the literature:  the Armenian genocide; the airlifts from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War; enslavement of Ukrainians during World War II; the oppression of Alevi Kurds; and the Ukrainian Holodomyr. Now she turns her literary attention to the Vietnamese “boat people” who were willing to risk everything to seek better lives far away from their new communist government.  Based on the story of Tuan Ho, a six-year-old boy whose family separated to make their way to Canada, and with Brian Deines’ formidable illustrations, Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy’s Story of Survival becomes a testimonial and an acknowledgement of those who demonstrate extraordinary courage in order to escape the horrors of their homelands.

At the onset of the story, Tuan’s father and older sister Linh have already escaped a year earlier (1980) by boat, hopeful of settling in Canada and sponsoring the family. Now Tuan’s mother tells him that they are leaving that night, though without his youngest sister Van whom Ma believes might not survive the journey and will instead remain behind with Tuan’s aunt and uncle.  In the middle of the night, Tuan, his mother, and sisters Loan and Lan, as well as another aunt and two cousins, make their way to the water, amidst gunfire and shouting soldiers.  Transported by motor boat, Tuan, Loan and their mother are reunited with Lan and the rest of his family on a larger fishing boat.

From Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy's Story of Survival 
by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch with Tuan Ho, illus. by Brian Deines

Though bullets no longer pepper the quiet of the sea, the challenges of a boat crowded with sixty people without shelter from a scorching sun and having only limited water are exacerbated when the boat starts taking on water on the second day, and the motor breaks down on the third day of their estimated four day journey.  They are now adrift and their fates unknown.   Witnessing another drifting boat setting itself on fire, hopeful that they are a rescue boat, makes Tuan wonder whether their  fate will be similar.
     The flames in the distance suddenly envelop that boat.  It overturns.  The flames and boat are swallowed by the sea.
     We sixty stare in silent horror, but there is nothing that we can do to help.
     Will this be our fate as well?
(pg. 28)
Not until the sixth day are they spotted by a massive American aircraft carrier and taken aboard, whereupon Tuan gets to partake in the glass of milk of which he has dreamed for days.  For Tuan, this would seem to be a happy ending, though the task of reuniting the whole family–father and sister Linh, with Tuan, his mother and sisters Loan and Lan, and finally little sister Van–is still to come, as Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch shares in an addendum, with family photographs.  Even beyond Tuan’s tale which is encompassed in the mere 34 illustrated pages, there is the story of the Vietnamese “boat people” and the circumstances by which they were forced to flee their country explained in Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch’s historical notes.

Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy’s Story of Survival is a big story to tell.  It’s broad in historical scope, and emotionally hefty in the distress and fear experienced by Tuan and his fellow refugees, and in its moral significance.  I’m afraid not all stories of Vietnamese refugees ended as favourably as for Tuan’s family but I am ever thankful that Tuan Ho’s story does have a happy ending and that Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch chose to share it with young readers in an illustrated book and that Pajama Press chose well to pair it with the art of Brian Deines. From the illustration of a lone boat adrift in a wash of dry heat that graces the cover of Adrift at Sea, to the dark and engrossing images of Tuan’s steps along the journey, Brian Deines’ art is evocative and integrative, resplendent in complementary colours of orange and golds and blues and purples.
From Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy's Story of Survival 
by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch with Tuan Ho, illus. by Brian Deines
By recounting Tuan’s story in the limited but succinct text of a picture book, Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch is able to forge a powerful connection between the emotions of the narrative and the visual i.e., the expansive oil painted art of Brian Deines. This makes Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy’s Story of Survival more than just a story about Tuan Ho.  It makes it an archive of historical importance for young readers to access.


  1. Helen, thank you for this WONDERFUL review!!!

  2. You are very welcome, Marsha. It's an important story to tell and I'm do glad you decided to do it as a picture book. Brian Deines' illustrations add so much to your text.

  3. Tuan's escape was so intensely visual that a picture book was the only way to do it justice. I was THRILLED when I learned that Brian Deines was composing the artwork. He has the ability to show the grueling nature of the journey, yet in a way that doesn't traumatize a young reader -- what a balancing act.

  4. Sounds like an incredible story!