Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai is a traditional story about an American girl stuck spending part of her summer vacation away from friends and boys and all that is good. It's also a fish-out-of-water story about an American girl stuck spending part of her summer vacation with her Vietnamese family in Vietnam. It's also whatever we call books that fit into the category "diverse books." And it does all those things well.
Mai's parents came to the U.S. from Vietnam when they were young. They are both professionals, so Mai has a comfortable, middle class or better life. Her father arrived in this country with his siblings and his mother after his father disappeared during the Vietnam Conflict. His mother, who never learned to speak English, lives with them. She is, if I recall, pushing eighty, if not older, not in great shape, and she's managed to hire a detective back in the old country to find out what happened to her husband decades ago. She just needs to get back to Vietnam to meet with him.
Mai's father, the doctor, goes back to Vietnam regularly to provide medical assistance in rural areas. But once he's there, he needs to tend to patients off in some remote spot. He can't hang out in the village with Mom and all his relatives. So he and his wife come up with a plan by which he would get twelve-year-old Mai and granny to the family in Vietnam, where Mai would watch over her grandmother and get to know the folks.
Mai is what I call a "bridge character" like Christopher in The Blackthorn Key. Because she is familiar to us, she acts as a bridge between us and what is, to us, the more unusual world of Vietnam, the way Christopher acts as a bridge between us and what is, to us, the unusual world of England in the sixteen hundreds. Mai feels about the strangeness of the culture there much as we would.
The author does a great job with the Vietnamese world. While the village where Mai's family lives is different from what we're used to--not everyone has showers or Internet access, and what's there isn't state of the art--it's not portrayed as being impoverished, either. There's a young relative with braces on her teeth, after all. And I loved the love triangle in the village, similar to the one Mai kind of thinks she's part of back home. The young guy who has been going to school in Texas, speaks with a Texas accent, and acts as translator for Mai? What a hoot. And a touching character, too.
That translator I just mentioned brings up the issue of language, which Meg Medina discusses in a recent Horn Book article. She is speaking of Spanish, but she says, "Language is such a dilemma in multicultural families and in the books that represent us. The fact is, some of us speak Spanish, and some of us don't--sometimes all under the same roof." That is definitely the case here. Mai understands some Vietnamese because she's lived with Vietnamese speaking people, though she made the choice to stop speaking herself because it marked her as different when she was in kindergarten. (Shades of Blackbird Fly!) It turns out, her closest contact among her new Vietnamese family members (the girl with braces), can understand some English. The language issue for families with American branches is very real. I think the title, Listen, Slowly, relates to a couple of the characters trying to understand one another.
I believe all the things I said about Listen, Slowly in the first paragraph here are true. But the book does all those things in a very organic way. There's never a feeling that this is a fish-out-of-water or girl-torn-from-her-social-group story with a "diverse" character tacked on. Nothing in this book could happen without Mai being who she is.
A word about grandma and her story--In the best of all possible worlds, Thanhha Lai would have written two books, Listen, Slowly and another about grandma and her experience as a young woman in Vietnam, coming to America and raising those kids, seeking out information about her husband, and then going to Vietnam with her granddaughter to find it. They would have both been published at the same time. And that would have been incredible.