Tag Archives: memoir

‘Where the Wind Leads: A Refugee Family’s Miraculous Story of Loss, Rescue, and Redemption’ by Vinh Chung with Tim Downs

“I am a refugee. My family went to sleep in one world and woke up in another, and more than anyone in my family I was trapped between those worlds. I was born in Vietnam, but I was not Vietnamese; I was raised in America. I grew up Asian in character but American in culture, a citizen but always a refugee. I had no lessons from the past to guide me, no right way to do things in the present, and no path to follow to the future.”

This is the incredible personal account of a refugee who fled from certain death and found flourishing life. It is a real-life rescue story, a poignant family drama, and a telling of recent world history. Many North Americans will remember the “boat people” who became thankful recipients of resettlement to a new life in a new land through resilience, determination, and many helping hands along the way. But what was it like for a young boy in a large family, suddenly separated from all he’d ever known, thrust into a different culture? Why was his Dad, who used to be a wealthy manager, now working a menial job? How would he be affected by this survival and redemption? How does a refugee see himself differently from an immigrant who chooses to leave?

Vinh Chung, originally from China, was born in South Vietnam, just eight months after it fell to the communists in 1975. His family was wealthy, controlling a rice-milling empire worth millions; but within months of the communist takeover, the Chungs lost everything and were reduced to abject poverty and forced to leave. They had no choice but to take their chances in a boat on the pirate infested waters of the South China Sea.

Rescued by a World Vision mercy ship, Chung went on to become a Fulbright Scholar, Harvard graduate, successful surgeon, and philanthropist. Chung is now a WV US board member.  The book includes some history of the early days of that organization under Stan Mooneyham and operation Seasweep. There’s a wonderful collection of photos included in the back of the book.

‘The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life’ by Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher is a columnist for The American Conservative, author of several books, and blogger about topics like religion, politics, film, and culture. He was brought to his knees by the death of his little sister Ruthie. When she was diagnosed at the age of forty with a hugely aggressive cancer, Rod returned to the small town where he grew up but had left behind in his youth. When he returned, he was surprised and humbled by the great love he witnessed in the community. His relationship with this town was fraught and his ties to family sometimes misunderstood and thin. Through a hard won lesson, Dreher learned that living in a small town did not mean living a small life. Rod wrote this memoir as a tribute to his sister, being brutally honest about loss and love, faith and family, struggle and sacrifice. He tells this true story well and honestly, discovering even things about himself along the way that he did not know. What he did know in the end, was that his sister’s death taught him how to live.

I once heard American writer Rhoda Janzen speak about memoir at a writer’s conference. She said memoir should be more than the story of a life, it should point to something beyond, some further resolve or purpose. She did this beautifully in Mennonite in a Little Black Dress as does Dreher in this book.  The books are very different stories but come to very similar conclusions. Both authors, in an unsentimental and thought provoking manner, rediscover their roots and humbly realize the warmth and joy of coming home.

NPR Interview with the author:
A Grieving Brother Finds Solace in his Sister’s ‘Small Town’

‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ by Judith Kerr

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbitstarstarstar(Grades 3-5) Judith Kerr was a child in Berlin before the outbreak of the Second World War. Her father was a journalist who had to flee with his family first to Switzerland, then to Paris, and finally to England where Judith has lived ever since.

In the story, Anna (Judith) sees posters everywhere of a man called Hitler who she thinks looks like Charlie Chaplin, but has no idea who he is. Why does her father have to leave? Why is it suddenly so dangerous to stay? Where are they going to go? Because of Hitler they must leave everything they know and love behind, including a stuffed pink rabbit.

Judith Kerr writes and illustrates books for children. You may also know the Mog series based on the family cat, and The Tiger who Came to Tea. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (first of the Out of the Hitler Time series) was written to convey to her children what it was like for her to be a refugee during the war. Her son had seen The Sound of Music and said, “now I know what you went through in the war.” She wrote Pink Rabbit to set him straight.  Even though her family was displaced, she has good memories of how her parents made it seem more like a positive adventure than being uprooted. She said she never realized until much later how hard it must have been for her parents to make the decision to flee to foreign lands. She has always been thankful they did.

Today I had the pleasure of being in the audience at a BBC recording and asking Judith Kerr a question. She is a very youthful 92 indeed and it was wonderful to listen to her speak about her life, art, and writing. There were several elderly war veterans who attended, having some connection to Judith and her family as well, and she enjoyed meeting them. In the interview it came up that sometimes people think that Pink Rabbit is a metaphor for “childhood.” She replied in a down-to-earth tone, “Absolutely not. Don’t read into it, it was just a stuffed pink rabbit!” She said her husband came up with the catchy title because he thought it would help sell the book. Well, he was right!

Teachers will find plenty of teaching resources online to use with this upper elementary book, focussing on the refugee experience as much as the Holocaust. Other similar books are Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine and Number the Stars by Lois Lowry.

‘The End of Your Life Book Club’ by Will Schwalbe

The End of Your Life Book Clubstarstarstarstar“Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.”

If you liked Tuesdays with Morrie, you’ll like this one. And if you are committed enough to reading to be in a book club, you’ll like this one. But what is the definition of ‘book club’? Not what you might think. In this case, all ‘book club’ really means is two people in conversation after having read the same book. That lets almost everyone in.

This is not a sad book. It is a poignant yet compelling memoir written by a loving son chronicling the end of his mother’s life. It’s a book about finding hope and joy in the midst of mortality. And it’s about the incredible power of books in our lives, affecting our thinking and stimulating our conversation.

Will and Mary Ann Schwalbe began an informal ‘book club’ simply by reading the same books and discussing them. It was something that just happened when Mary Ann found herself with pancreatic cancer and Will found himself spending time with her during treatments. He recounts conversations, mentions book titles they enjoyed, shares his feelings and her reactions to a variety of literary works. It is open and honest about what their family went through after their mother’s diagnosis of a disease that was “treatable but not curable”, an important distinction she makes.

The title is not The End of “Her” Life Book Club. The use of the word Your is deliberate. You (and I), even if perfectly healthy, have no idea when we might be reading our last book or having our last conversation. Although we don’t usually dwell on that, it is absolutely true.

There is a lot of wisdom in this book. Here are some notable quotes:
“…when you’re with someone who is dying, you may need to celebrate the past, live the present, and mourn the future all at the same time.”
“The world is complicated…You don’t have to have one emotion at a time.”

This book did not cost me anything initially, because a good friend gave it to me (thanks Nandy!). But it did cost me in the end because I was compelled to order three more books which the Schwalbe’s made irresistible.  They are: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, The Etiquette of Illness by Susan Halpern, and Daily Strengths for Daily Needs by Mary Tileston.

‘Does This Church Make Me Look Fat?’ by Rhoda Janzen

Does This Church Make Me Look Fat?starstarstarThe subtitle for this part two memoir is a summary in a nutshell: ‘A Mennonite Finds Faith, Meets Mr. Right, and Solves Her Lady Problems’. This is Rhoda Janzen’s sequel to Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, which I thought was funnier and fresher, but then sequels often find it hard to compete with the original. It is still vintage Janzen: funny, honest, grateful, and self deprecating. This is a brave story cloaked in dark humour. Janzen teaches creative writing at Hope College and has a Ph.D. from UCLA. She is a poet and knows how to write.

In the first book she survives the end of her marriage and a serious car accident. In the second book she enters a new love relationship, finds a new church home, and battles a serious cancer, not necessarily in that order. Her life has undergone some significant changes. Although her faith language can be a bit rough around the edges and delightfully irreverent at times, the journey she shares speaks volumes about how much she appreciates her roots and is surprised by faith at every turn. Barbara Brown Taylor said this and I agree with it. “Rhoda Janzen is one of the few people I trust to write about faith without using God to clobber me.”

My best takeaway from  Janzen’s books is that even though inevitably things happen in life that we do not choose and are not able to change, what we do have control over is choosing our attitude about it.  This is a great responsibility, but also a great freedom.

‘Mennonite in a Little Black Dress’, by Rhoda Janzen

I read this book when I still had a small dog who slept in my lap when I read. He didn’t really like this book, because I kept startling him every time I burst out laughing.
Rhoda Janzen’s husband leaves her for a guy called Bob who he met on gay.com. She is in a terrible car accident, and becomes unable to meet her mortgage payments. Her only option as she reels from all of this, is a return to her Mennonite home. Her humour and breezy voice move the story along as she rediscovers the warmth and strength of her roots, and her Mennonite mother is such a hoot!

Janzen was once poet laureate at UCLA, she now teaches writing at Hope College, and  is an excellent writer. Apparently she’s one of those teachers who has the reputation for being really tough, but if you survive the class, you learn so much.

Janzen believes that biography should be more than the story of a life.  She believes that in a memoir,  there must be movement from captivity to restoration: a resolving of a problem, as in music when a minor note resolves to a satisfying major in the final note. For the author the redemption was to rediscover the value of her upbringing when she returned to the family home.

Click the link below if you want to hear Rhoda Janzen speak about her Mennonite home and her upbringing. There are no spoilers in it.  At four minutes it’s a bit long for an interview, but if you’re like me, hearing and seeing the author enhances the reading of the book.

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‘Half Broke Horses’, by Jeannette Walls

For those of you who loved The Glass Castle, here is another great story from Walls, again based on her family members; this time it is about her no nonsense, feisty grandmother. And if you haven’t read The Glass Castle, drop everything and run to the library.

This is fiction but it is really the story of Jeannette Walls’ grandmother, Lily Casey Smith. In Walls’ signature offhand, unsentimental voice, the story unfolds of a remarkable woman. Yes, she broke horses, but she did way more than that. She was a surviver and adventurer, no dream too big or unusual for her to tackle.

What I enjoyed most about Half Broke Horses, after first reading The Glass Castle, was an understanding of the family that Rosemary Smith Walls grew up in. It does shed some light on that memorable character and what made her who she was.