October 03, 2018

Too Young to Escape: A Vietnamese Girl Waits to be Reunited with her Family

Written by Van Ho with Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Pajama Press
152 pp.
Ages 8-12
November 2018

When Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch co-wrote Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy's Story of Survival with Tuan Ho, she began a family's story of escape from Vietnam in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and taking of power by the communists. In that picture book, illustrated by Brian Deines, a mother and her two daughters, Loan and Lan, and six-year-old son Tuan escape Vietnam by boat, hopeful of joining father and the eldest daughter Linh in Canada. But there was another story. Because four-year-old Van is left behind.  Too Young to Escape is her story.

In May of 1981, four-year-old Van awakens at 5 a.m. in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to find her mother, older sisters Loan and Lan, and her six-year-old brother Tuan gone. Though it is unusual for Tuan to go with the women to do their early morning work, Van is distracted by her own chores. As guests of their aunt and uncle, Dì and Bác, since her own family lost everything when the communists took over, Van's pre-school work includes cleaning the house and spinning yarn for a weaver to later make the rice sacks Dì and Bác sold. But when her siblings don't show up to school, Van learns from her grandmother, Bà Ngoại, that her mother and siblings are gone. Van is devastated, wondering why she wasn't good enough to go with them, but Bà Ngoại reassures her that they've gone on a dangerous journey and Van's respiratory issues–she has difficulty breathing and often has to clear phlegm from her lungs–would have made it even more hazardous for her and the family.
Sometimes there are no perfect solutions. (pg. 31)
So begins a difficult chapter in little Van's life, slaving away at her aunt and uncle's home, tormented by a policeman's son at school, and feeling the loss of her family, particularly her mother who, she'd thought, should have been there to protect her. Still her Bà Ngoại, though seemingly insensitive to Van's struggles, tries to help Van understand.
Be thankful for what you do have, little one, instead of fretting about what you don't have. (pg. 64)
And Van learns to become "an expert at hiding my sadness" (pg. 67). Finally, they get a heartfelt letter and package from Saskatoon where her parents and four siblings have reunited. Along with some gifts, including clothes that growing Van desperately needs, Van learns that that her parents have submitted applications to bring Van and Bà Ngoại to join them.

It takes over four years before Van and her grandmother are reunited with her family in Canada, a family that "was like a storybook family" (pg. 87), and, though her life in Vietnam is difficult, it is a life with which she is familiar and leaving it is difficult.

Van Ho, who lived this story, tells it through Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch's pen of extraordinary writing which reflects both Van's youthful point of view and her trauma. Her story is a disquieting but it's also uplifting, focusing on Van's resilience.  Told from her perspective, from Van explaining away her family's absence before she learns the reason to her obligation to completing chores many of our culture might deem inappropriate for one so young to finding a friend in a girl less fortunate than herself, Van's story of being left behind is heartbreaking.

Enhancing Van Ho's story with photographs and interviews with her father, Nam Ho, and mother, Phuoc Ho, Too Young to Escape gives a snapshot of a different time and place, one of upheaval and loss, perseverance and endurance, that ends with a reunion and a good life in Canada. It is a story of survival, even if Van Ho was Too Young to Escape.


  1. Thank you,Helen, for this awesome review.

  2. It appears that once again, Marsha has penned a thought provoking story. A great review.

    1. She certainly has. Whether it's fiction or non-fiction, picture book or novel or biographic narrative, Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch consistently delivers.