Sky of Bombs, Sky of Stars: A Vietnamese War Orphan Finds Home
Sky of Bombs, Sky of Stars: A Vietnamese War Orphan Finds Home
“What is that place?” asked Tuyet, pointing at the strange winged building.
“A giant airplane called a Hercules,” said the woman, in Vietnamese. “It will go up into the sky and take us away from the war. It will take you to safety.”
Tuyet was amazed. She knew the sound of airplanes. She had heard their roar almost as often as she had heard the whop-whop-whop of helicopters. But this airplane was bigger than her orphanage....
Tuyet clung to the woman’s shoulders as she was carried in. The woman set her down on the floor in the cargo hold amidst boxes of babies, canvas bags, straps and crates of formula, food and medicine. The women began to push the boxes of babies close together...[and] secured them with a long sticky strap that looped over several boxes at once. Tuyet saw that it was time to make herself useful. Without being asked, she copied what the woman was doing and strapped in a second row of screaming and wriggling babies... The giant door closed and the inside of the airplane quickly became hot and stuffy. Worse than the heat was the smell of dirty diapers.
In the kitchen, Dad was holding a big plate with something that looked like a cake. But Tuyet’s heart clutched with fear. The cake was on fire! Mom and Dad and Lara and Beth all shouted together, “Surprise! Happy Birthday!” They were grinning and giggling, but Tuyet was confused.
“Fire!” she said, pointing to the cake. “Bad! ... Tuyet hobbled to the sink, grabbed a glass from the draining tray and filled it with water. She turned to the cake and was about to dump the water on it - when Mom grabbed the glass from her just in time.
Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch, an award-winning author of historical fiction and nonfiction for children and adults, writes in her “Author’s Note” that she originally intended to write a novel based upon the composite experiences of Vietnamese war orphans who found refuge in Canada after Saigon fell in 1975. With this objective in mind, she approached Son Thi Anh Tuyet Morris, now Mrs. Tuyet Yurczyszyn, to share her memories of the last airlift rescue mission destined for Canada. Many of Tuyet’s memories were suppressed, but, as their interviews progressed, she recalled more, and the author decided to present her story in a work of nonfiction.
Sky of Bombs, Sky of Stars: A Vietnamese War Orphan Finds Home is literary nonfiction; that is, a true, researched, factual story which uses some of the narrative techniques of fiction writing, such as “showing, not telling”, description, dialogue, and interior monologue. The attractive cover, showing a girl drawn in silhouette looking at stars (or maybe explosions), and the vivid storytelling, may give some young readers the impression that the book is a novel. Reading on, the photographs of helicopters, tanks, fleeing crowds, and rows of babies in boxes in an aircraft reveal that this story has a particular historical setting. But the picture on Page 71 personalizes the story. It shows a Vietnamese girl with two parents and three younger children in a Canadian living room. The fact that Tuyet is real, not a fictional character, will make the book compelling for young readers.
Using the third person, but limiting it to Tuyet’s perspective, Skrypuch begins by showing the eight-year-old’s life in a Saigon orphanage. When American soldiers bring candy, she can’t crowd around them like the others do because she is lame, with a foot that curves under, and one leg shorter than the other. Although she cannot remember how she came to be in the orphanage, Tuyet recalls two visitors who came to see her, a woman and a boy. She thinks they might have been her mother and her brother because the woman held her on her lap for a while. "After a while they stopped coming."
The noise of war is ever-present in the background. When the orphanage doors open to admit a van, she can see, beyond them, people running with bundles and suitcases. Babies and toddlers are being evacuated, with Tuyet the only older child included. Readers learn later in the historical note that the nuns sent her because children with disabilities would be killed by the North Vietnamese.
Tuyet’s leadership qualities are demonstrated during the flight and after her arrival in Toronto. When the babies are put to bed in individual bassinets to sleep, they scream and won’t settle. She and another older girl spread blankets on the floor, pick up the babies and place them together so they are touching. Arranged in this familiar way, they sleep. Couples come to Surrey Place, the children’s temporary residence, to take babies away, but no one chooses Tuyet, (The historical note explains that the children on this flight were not pre-adopted.) When a couple with three children, including a Vietnamese baby, come to adopt Tuyet, she thinks they are choosing her to be their child care helper.
The scenes showing Tuyet’s difficulties in adjusting to a foreign language and customs are amusing yet heartrending. When Tuyet’s adoptive parents, Dorothy and John Morris of Brantford, introduce themselves as “Mom” and “Dad”, Tuyet is intrigued by the presence of a father. In her experience, fathers were an unreal concept; no one at the orphanage seemed to have one. Here, in this country, she sees, “they are more than ghosts.” She assumes that the green lawn outside the house is a rice paddy until she examines the blades of grass up close. Lonely in her bedroom at night, she joins the two younger girls in the family, lying on the floor between two beds. When her parents realize she is happier there, they bring in bedding to make her a comfortable nest. Through such scenes, the author shows the kindness and insight of Tuyet’s adoptive parents who spare no effort in helping their newest child adjust to Canadian life.
When a Vietnamese woman appears one day at the Morris home, Tuyet shouts at her to go away, thinking the woman has come to take her somewhere else. As it turns out, the visitor is a translator who explains that this is her permanent home, that the Morrises are her parents, and that she will be getting medical attention for her foot and leg. Corrective surgery is a terrifying experience for Tuyet, bringing on nightmares in which past and present combine. In hospital, Tuyet doesn't realize at first that the "black button" attached to her bed is a bell with which she can summon the nurse, nor does she have the English language skills to explain when she is hungry or thirsty, or needs more pain medication or help in getting to the bathroom. When her parents visit one day and find her in pain, they summon a nurse, then locate a Vietnamese medical student to explain the use of the bell. He makes her a list of Vietnamese phrases with their English counterparts so that she can point to the English word for what she needs. The operation, the first of many, is successful. Tuyet works hard at her physiotherapy and gains improved mobility.
The story ends with a significant incident that demonstrates Tuyet’s physical and psychological progress. The historical note, the information about polio, the list of resources and, above all, the author’s note, are very useful to readers in getting the most out of Sky of Bombs, Sky of Stars. In giving young Tuyet her own unique voice and vividly presenting her joys and anxieties in a carefully structured story, Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch has created an excellent work of literary nonfiction. Tuyet, she says, is her hero, and indeed Tuyet will be a hero to the young people who read this inspiring story.
Ruth Latta’s most recent novels are historical nonfiction, including Votes, Love and War, (Ottawa, Baico, 2019). Ruth resides in Ottawa, Ontario.