Run Me To Earth
(Simon & Schuster, 2020)
In his first novel, Snow Hunters (2013), Paul Yoon wrote about Yohan, a former prisoner of war during the Korean War who refuses repatriation to North Korea. For a time, Yohan remains in camp and assists the doctors before eventually leaving to Brazil. Snow Hunters was a superbly compact novel about separation and loss, grief and the horrors of war. Paul Yoon’s new novel, his second, Run Me to Earth, takes place during the Laotian Civil War. While the Vietnam War rages on, Laos is engaged in a civil war between the Soviet-supported, communist Pathet Lao and the American-backed Royal Lao Government throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Many North Vietnamese who were born in Laos support the Pathet Lao, while the Hmong fighters help the Royal Lao Government, assisted by strategic and military support through the American Central Intelligence Agency. Much of the story is factual, but Yoon has taken some liberties with the actual timeline and some of the geographic terrain in his chilling story about how civilians survive throughout the war.
It’s difficult to write serious fiction about war, especially if the writer’s ultimate goal is intellectual honesty. As Tim O’Brien wrote in The Things They Carried (1990), “You can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.” Writing serious war stories about non-combatants requires even more of that dedication. In Yoon’s work—Snow Hunters, Once the Shore (2009), and a few of the stories in The Mountain (2017)—war, with all of its attendant obscenity and evil, shapes Yoon’s characters, while the characters attempt to shape their patch of war. In a sense, Yoon presents war as something of a major character that influences nearly everything from life in all its forms: human, plant, animal, to nature itself. The obscenity—the killing, torture, and bombings—are mostly accomplished off-page or as half scenes, yet the revenge-killing of an interrogator is rather graphic.
Besides the war itself, Yoon’s primary characters are three orphaned teenagers, Alisak, Prany, and Noi, and Dr. Vang. Prany and Noi are brother and sister. Vang started a field hospital for civilians. The three teenagers are recruited by nurses to be couriers and do odd-jobs as necessary:
For keeping watch and for keeping the ward clean, for assisting these people who were trying to save as many civilians as possible in a war that had been going on in various forms for almost all their lives (and for riding the motorcycles), they were paid more American dollars in a day than they could earn in six months on the streets of Phonsavan.
Their job as motorbike-riding couriers is fraught with danger, not only from aerial bombings, but from cluster bombs that haven’t exploded, euphemistically called “bombies.” In his forward, Yoon writes: “Over two million tons of ordnance were dropped on Laos—more than was dropped on both Germany and Japan during the Second World War. 30 percent of these cluster bombs, or ‘bombies,’ failed to explode on impact.” Many of those bombs came from American planes, not the enemy.
Whether they were being attacked by their supposed allies or the enemy, Alisak, Prany, and Noi each knew that if the jeep that pulled up to recruit them was from the other side, they wouldn’t have cared as long as it meant the promise of food and shelter.
Yoon describes the near-hopelessness of their wandering, but emphasizes their tenacity through phrasal repetition: “always staying together, sleeping where they could, finding work where they could, avoiding the armies where they could.” Throughout their young lives, they took on various jobs. Alisak once worked as a cook, bicycled a rickshaw, sketched and sold portraits of farmers in the fields, and was even a bouncer outside a gambling house.
If trying to find shelter, work, and food wasn’t dangerous and mortifying enough, they had to survive the rainy seasons and the sudden approach of strangers. This was a war “where the boundaries shifted endlessly, where they often jolted awake from the sound of bombers or the sudden appearance of an army in a town or a village they were staying in.”
They press on, trying to survive any way they can. They play a game they’ve been playing for years in which they imagine where they would like to go at night: “A museum or Paris. The moon. A cave, an endless beach… No one ever said home.”
But a new home is always on their minds. When Dr. Vang promises they will soon evacuate, the teens speculate that Vang will take them to Thailand or France. Eventually, the field hospital falls under heavy attack, and everyone tries to evacuate. I’ll not spoil the drama by disclosing who escapes, but I will reveal that not everyone lives.
Other characters include Khit, who evolves from minor to major character; Auntie who runs a kind of underground railroad for refugees, and a notorious rogue called the Frenchman, reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz. Yoon’s story is told from multiple viewpoints, mostly from 1969–1977. The multiple viewpoints in different eras sometimes include embedded flash-backs and flash-forwards that can be a challenge to follow. But succeeding chapters from Khit’s viewpoint help clarify the timeline: one chapter, from Khit’s viewpoint, is set in 1994, another in 2018. Khit fills-in details of the past in a sort of epilogue concerning the fates of Alisak, Prany, Noi, and Vang. Yoon’s writing, as in his earlier work, is graceful and understated, and amazingly enough that understated grace truthfully depicts the obscenity of war.