another book in the time of coronavirus

Recently, I finished a remarkable book by Paul Yoon called Run Me to Earth about three young orphans during the 1960s civil war in Laos. The book blurb sums up it beautifully, “…Paul Yoon crafts a gorgeous study that is a breathtaking historical feat and a fierce study of the powers of hope, perseverance, and grace.” Three children, Alisak, his little sister Noi and their friend Prany survive a bombing of their village and the death of their families. On the run from the constant bombings, they take refuge in an abandoned house turned into a makeshift field hospital. These three kids “earn their keep” by making supply runs on old motorbikes. They have regular routes to other field hospitals in search of morphine or antibiotics as well as food runs to nearby villages. The orphans meld into the hospital’s supportive community until death and evacuation separates them. The group members who survive end up as refugees in America, France and Spain living emotionally untethered lives with war-scarred memories.

This is what I want you to know before you start reading this book. The setting is Laos in the 1960s during a civil war between the Royal Lao government which was US supported and pro-West and the Communist Pathet Lao party. Sound a little familiar? It should because this civil war was a Cold War proxy war between the US and Russia just like the Cambodian Civil War and the Vietnam War. These countries were part of French Indochina until France began transferring power to in-country pro-western governments which weren’t always popular with the civilians. The two major theaters of action were the Laotian Panhandle because the Ho Chi Minh Trail ran through it and the Plain of Jars. The Plain of Jars is an archaeological area which dates from 50BC. It is full of thousands of stone jars, mainly carved from sandstone. It is thought that these jars were used in ancient cremations or as large water collectors during the monsoons. In 2019, the Plain of Jars became an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=603778

Yoon begins the book with a note stating the extreme number of bombs the US dropped in the Plain of Jars. Yoon writes there was a “bombardment every eight minutes, twenty-four hours a day, for nine years.” As I read the history of this war, I learned that between 1964-1973 the US dropped more bombs in the Plain of Jars than we dropped total in World War 2. Think about that. The bombings include 262 million cluster bombs with an estimated 80 million that didn’t explode. This makes it difficult for archaeologists to dig and research this megalithic site. UNESCO and the Lao government are working to clear the region and develop it for tourism.

This powerful novel is only 254 pages. It is to the author’s great credit to be able to tell such a poignant and heartbreaking story of children growing up amidst war and displacement in such a short beautiful book. You will love these kids and their spirit of compassion and survival in such terrible times.

https://history.state.gov/milestones/1961-1968/laos-crisis

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laotian_Civil_War#1960:_The_neutralist_coup

Plain of Jars video

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