Book Review: Butterfly Yellow

Butterfly Yellow is a beautifully written and emotionally moving story of redemption and reconnection. I loved every word, and highly recommend it.

Butterfly Yellow by Thanhhà Lḁi

I’m a sucker for books that feature diverse protagonists, especially if the plot involves culture clash. When I saw this in the store, I couldn’t resist. It did not disappoint.

Cover Description

“In the final days of the Vietnam War, Hằng takes her little brother, Linh, to the airport, determined to find a way to America, a place of freedom and wonder. In a split second, Linh is ripped from her arms—and Hằng is left behind in a war-torn country.

Six years later, Hằng has made the harrowing journey as a refugee from Vietnam to Texas, a flat, endless expanse dotted with twisty mesquite trees and oil fields. She doesn’t know how she will find her little brother in this foreign land filled with people who speak hissy, snaky English. Then she meets LeeRoy, a city boy with big rodeo dreams.

Hằng is overjoyed when she and Linh are finally reunited. But her heart is crushed when she realizes that he doesn’t remember her, their family, or Vietnam. The distance between them feels greater than ever. But Hằng has come so far and will do anything to bridge the gap.”

Characters

Hằng is a spunky young woman whose determination brings her through the horrors of refugee life to her brother, a true role model for any age. Plagued by guilt, haunted by trauma, and filled with longing, her character garners immediate empathy without being piteous.

LeeRoy is a wannabe cowboy who always thinks of food. At first, his character came off as corny, but his small acts of heroism and kindness won me over by the end. The contrast between Hằng and LeeRoy provides a beautiful example of people reaching each other across cultures. So different, yet perfect friends. Her stubbornness and his cowboy grit collide in adorable spats. By the end, I loved them both.

Plot

Overall, the story was well-paced and kept me engaged throughout. I like that the book begins with Hằng finding her brother, and the story revolves around her difficulty in reconnecting with him. The challenges that arrive after escaping a war zone are an often untold part of the refugee story.

My one critique is that I waited the entire book to learn what happened to Hằng on the island, and the author dumped it all in a series of flashbacks. The story was worth the wait, but I wish she had sprinkled more of it in sooner. I like how LeeRoy supports her during that time, and I love that he never asks her to explain.

Writing Style

I love reading books by poets. I’ve read several by Diane Ackerman and love how descriptive she is. Lḁi’s prose is so full of imagery that reading it is like looking at a painting. Beautiful and imaginative, her descriptions reflect Hằng’s perspective. Reading from Hằng’s point of view makes Texas feel like an alien land, exactly how it seems to Hằng. LeeRoy’s perspective is much more down-to-earth, and I love that Lḁi includes so many forced westernisms for the wannabe cowboy.

The best part, for me, about Lḁi’s writing is her inclusion of Vietnamese and her use of English-in-Vietnamese spellings. Hằng’s dialogue and thoughts seem that much more real. Lḁi uses LeeRoy to “translate” in a way that naturally fits with the flow of the story, not forced. Everything is easy to understand, yet the writing itself adds to the sense of two cultures colliding. As a bilingual speech therapist, I could gush for pages about how much I loved this, but you get the idea.

Conclusion

Butterfly Yellow is a beautifully written and emotionally moving story of redemption and reconnection. I loved every word, and highly recommend it.


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Malapropism: “Embarrassing” Mistakes

Most English speakers have, at least once, accidentally told a Spanish-speaker they were pregnant.

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Weird Words and Why they Matter

My sophomore year of college, my dad’s work sent him to Spain. As a budding Spanish major, I jumped at the opportunity to tag along. Ten hours of travel and a lot of jet lag later, we landed in Madrid, got a rental car, and drove toward the small town where he would be working. Along the way, we stopped for breakfast. That’s where my trouble began.

I tried to say something like “May I please have one of those delicious-looking chocolate pastries, if you would be so kind as to get one for me.” What came out of my mouth was a series of nervous squeaks.

Meanwhile, my father, in loud English (because talking louder helps people understand you {insert eye-roll}), points and says, “I’ll have one of those, one of those, and a Diet Coke.”

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I was horrified. As soon as we left I said, “Dad, you just reinforced every stereotype about American tourists. You acted like a bumbling buffoon!”

He looked at me and said, “Who got breakfast faster?”

He had a point. I was so concerned about being polite and conjugating the subjunctive verb tense that I botched the whole communication exchange. I was so terrified of malapropism that I didn’t say anything.

The Word

Malapropism is the humorous misuse of a word by confusing it with a similar-sounding word. This delightful term comes from the 1775 play The Rivals, in which a character, Mrs. Malaprop, frequently says things like “the pineapple of perfection.” [i]

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Why it Matters

When you held your scribbles up to your kindergarten teacher and explained they depicted your Mom, Dad, and dog, was it really a masterpiece? Learning a language is like learning any other skill: it takes time and practice. A lot of practice.

Malapropisms are everywhere in second-language learning. Most English speakers have, at least once, accidentally told a Spanish-speaker they were pregnant. The word embarazada is a false-cognate, meaning it looks like the English word “embarrassed,” but it actually means pregnant.

On that first trip to Spain with my father, my Spanish did not improve because I feared  malapropisms too much to practice. Now I know better. When I attend a conversation group, I bumble away. I make plenty of mistakes, but also plenty of progress. The native speakers have never made fun of my silly malapropisms.

For those trying to learn a second (or third, or fourth) language, I encourage you to practice without fear of malapropism. Most native speakers are understanding of beginner mistakes. If you run into one who isn’t, ask them to say the world squirrel 😊 They’ll never laugh at you again.


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[i] Garg, Anu, and Stuti Garg. A Word a Day: A Fomp through Some of the Most Unusual and Intriguing Words in English. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003.