The Dragon’s Song by Binh Pham and R.M. Clark

The Dragon’s Song by Binh Pham and R.M. Clark
Publisher: Intense Publications
Genre: Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Action/Adventure, Historical
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Eleven-year-old Bao Dang remembers watching in horror four years earlier as Communist soldiers dragged his parents from their home. Now an orphan, he begins a journey to escape the oppressive government of South Vietnam. The owner of a small boat, paid in gold, smuggles Bao and his cousin, Binh Pham, down the Saigon River at night to the South China Sea, where he and over one hundred other “boat people” pack into a trawler designed to hold fewer than thirty. For six days, they face danger from the police, weather, and pirates, not to mention the constant threat of capsizing as they take on water while living only on dry, rationed rice.

Bao, Binh and the others hope a refugee camp in Indonesia accepts them, but there’s no guarantee. Word has it they may be turned away and even towed back out to sea to starve. Eventually finding a safe haven, Bao harnesses the power of music to heal and help endure months of harsh and dangerous living while he and Binh await word from relatives in the United States, hoping they’ll obtain the ultimate gift: freedom.

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I loved the fact that this gripping adventure was inspired by the real experiences of Mr. Pham in the early 1980s. He suffered many physical and emotional hardships during his escape from South Vietnam and the many different refugee camps and other places he stayed during his long immigration process. There were moments when I wondered whether specific scenes were fictionalized or based on true events. So much emotion was packed into all of them that I couldn’t always guess where the line was between fact and fiction. I credit the authors for seamlessly moving between what really happened versus what could have happened. They did an excellent job of portraying what the fictional Binh and Bao went through as they risked it all for a safer and happier life.

The characters met all sorts of different people in this tale, from those who were violent and cruel to others who would do anything to help a stranger. It was fascinating to me to try to guess where any one particular character might fall on this scale. Since this was written for middle grade readers, I was glad that such a strong emphasis was placed on the many kind and helpful folks in the world while still acknowledging that not everyone fits that bill.

This book included several moments of joy and humor that were as unexpected as they were delightful. Some of them happened when Bao and Binh were in circumstances that were otherwise quite difficult. It was nice to see them smile and even laugh after all they’d been through. The trauma they endured was real, but those scenes gave me so much hope for their futures while I waited to find out if the United States would accept their applications to immigrate there.

I’d wholeheartedly recommend The Dragon’s Song to anyone who has ever been an immigrant or would like to read a detailed, empathetic account of what that experience can be like.

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