Happy Lunar New Year – and a book excerpt.
The book has lovely illustrations by Donna Rawlins, but you’ll have to imagine that for this excerpt!
It started on the first day of Tet, in the middle of the fun and firecrackers, when they put old pants and shirts on top of their New Year clothes and took a bus from Saigon to Uncle Huan’s near the sea. Or before that, when Ma sold everything they owned so nothing was left but the furniture and Trung’s bamboo cage for his fighting crickets. Or maybe it started two years before, on that rainy day in 1976 when the soldiers took Ba away because he was a doctor for the army that lost the war.
Whenever it started, it happened the night they crept out of Uncle’s house in the middle of the night, Mai on Ma’s back and Trung carrying his parcel of new clothes.
A man was waiting on the path to the river. Trung froze so still his breath didn’t come, but his mother hurried forward as if she didn’t know how to be afraid.
‘It’s Ba,’ she whispered.
Every morning for two years Trung had prayed to see his father again. This man was thinner and older, with his two front teeth missing, but when he held out his arms, Trung exploded into them like a cricket escaping to freedom.
Mai couldn’t remember so long ago; she thought Ba was an ancestor in a photo. She started to cry.
‘Sh!’ whispered her mother, and they hurried on to the river through the moon shadows and strange night noises.
A crowd of people were waiting on the bank – men and women, children and grandmothers – and even though they jostled and stared, even the babies stayed quiet as a secret. Trung had so many questions he didn’t know what they were, but he held tight to his father’s hand while a voice inside his head chirped like a happy cricket, ‘Ba’s here and we’ll be all right! Ba’s here, we’re together again!’
Ma and Mai came up behind them. Mai started to cry again till Ma turned around. ‘Silly Mai!’ whispered Trung. ‘It’s Ba!’
Then, from the darkness of the river, Trung saw three dragon shapes gliding towards them. He tugged Ba’s hand hard – then a wave of people pushed them to the water, and the dragons turned into sampans with a boatman poling each one.
Trung stumbled as the river snatched him. His feet skidded, his arms waved, and he splashed face-first into the water. His parcel of clothes floated away.
Ba grabbed him and dumped into a sampan. More people tumbled in: a bigger boy landed on his foot and someone’s elbow was in his back.
Ba turned around for Ma and Mai.
The boatman lifted his pole. ‘No more!’
‘Ba!’ croaked Turn, his throat so dry with fear that his voice didn’t work.
The night was black and the river was blacker, but blackest of all was the big fishing boat ahead of them, with the line of people scurrying up its side like ants up a honey jar. Then their sampan bumped against it too, Ba hoisted him up to a ladder, and the other boat started poling back to the shore.
To get Ma and Mai, thought Trung, as hand by hand, foot by foot, he climbed the prickly rope ladder to the deck.
The half –moon came out, its crescent of light shining on the calm sea.
It shone on the soldiers who burst out of the woods, and on the sampans racing up the river to hide.
It shone on the shore where Ma waited with Mai, while the fishing boat with Ba and Trung sailed out to cross the sea to Australia, 6000 kilometres away.
Wendy Orr is a Canadian-born Australian writer. Her books for children and adults have been published in 27 countries and won awards around the world. Nim’s Island and Nim at Sea have also become feature films, starring Jodie Foster and Abigail Breslin (Nim’s Island) and Bindi Irwin (Return to Nim’s Island.) Her latest book is Cuckoo’s Flight, a companion to the highly acclaimed Bronze Age novels Dragonfly Song and Swallow’s Dance. Read full bio