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Butterfly Yellow: 11/11/19

Butterfly Yellow

Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai is set during 1981 in Amarillo Texas. It's told from alternating points of view. Hằng is an eighteen year old refugee from Việt Nam on a quest to find her younger brother. Leroy is an eighteen year old wannabe cowboy who has a good ear for understanding Hằng's English and the desire to help her out.

The first thing that struck me about grounded Butterfly Yellow is in the era. The details are right for 1981. The arts and music are there. Leroy, for instance, is just discovering rap and hiphop after the recent release of Rapture by Blondie. He's trying to learn the lyrics for the older songs that have finally gained purchase on white radio stations. Hằng meanwhile has learned her English through Clint Eastwood films and National Geographic issues.

The second thing that sets Butterfly Yellow apart is the way Hằng's accent is rendered. Rather than write her accent as an English speaker would hear it, Thanhha Lai has rendered her English with Vietnamese phonemes. It takes a while to get used to but it ultimately provides the best insight into the music of Hằng's native language.

Much of the novel is centered on Hằng working for her brother's adoptive family, hoping she can spark memories of his childhood before being airlifted against his and his sister's will. There are glimpses of his old life — he's given his horse his old name and he can hum along with the songs Hằng sings.

Ultimately Butterfly Yellow is about Hằng and Leroy both need to readjust their initial goals to the reality of the situation. She won't be taking her brother home. Leroy won't be meeting his favorite rodeo star, nor is he cut out to be the sort of cowboy he's imagined himself as. All in all it's a delightful and realistic look at the post Việt Nam war era as seen through the eyes of two eighteen year olds trying to learn how the world works and their place in it.

Five stars

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