Review: The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Trigger Warning: Non-explicit sexual assault, death of children, racism, homophobia, representation of dementia, depictions of the refugee asylum process that may be especially difficult for those impacted by family separation through deportation

I read The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen to fulfill the “read a book about a refugee” category in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge.

This novel is comprised of a series of vignettes featuring characters whose lives were impacted by the Vietnam war. There is little I can say about the book without spoiling it but I can say that it is incredibly well written and heartwrenching. Nguyen gives the reader glimpses into the lives of different characters who live in varying degrees of separation from the Vietnam war. Some characters are Americans who served, some are direct refugees from the conflict, some are second generation Vietnamese Americans trying to grapple with the ghosts of their past. Nguyen himself is a refugee and the two essays at the end of the novel provide excellent context for the novel itself and I highly encourage you to read them though they are not directly connected to the novel itself.

This book is important to read even years past the Vietnam war because it is easy to draw a pattern in how America reacts to refugees. America is quick to create or join a conflict that suits its needs but the fallout from those conflicts, namely human lives, is left to others. I remember studying how America has treated immigrants in the past and this maltreatment is always treated like a sin we’ve atoned for and moved away from instead of a continued policy we weaponize against people of color. Vietnam refugees, like the characters in this book, are facing a backlash as are Syrian and Mexican refugees. There is no doubt in my mind that these actions will one day be taught with the same detached criticism that our treatment of Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century are today. But it is not enough to look back and be regretful. The only genuine apology is changed behavior and if the US does not change its inhumane treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers we will continue to be a shameful mockery of the values we claim to represent. Worse, more and more human lives will be traumatized and lost.

Review: Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions by Amy Stewart

This book is actually the third in the Kopp Sisters series of historical fiction based on an actual person. Amy Stewart’s series starts with Girl Waits With Gun and follows the life of Constance Kopp, the first female Sheriff in the United States of America.

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The basic premise is that Constance Kopp stood up to people no one else would, won the respect of the Sheriff of New Jersey and began working with him despite objections from many, many people and society in 1914 in general. This book, Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions, is a bit different from the first two.

In this book, Stewart brings in the issue of sexist policies in early 20th century laws. Kopp is brought in to help with two different young women who are arrested for, essentially, being “unladylike” aka sleeping with men while unmarried, being accused to staying out too late and dancing, etc. There are two different kinds of women who Kopp helps. The first is legitimately a “good girl” even by society’s standards. The second is guilty of all the things she is accused of and Kopp struggles to help her avoid a life in a sanitarium for troubled girls.

Quick note – I’m calling them women but if memory serves (I read this book sometime in August I think), they are technically teenagers, but I believe legal adults. In any case they were in that odd stage of womanhood where they could be infantilized and/or sexualized and/or just married off to make babies.

While Constance deals with the sexism she faces systemically and professionally, we get more of her younger sister Fleurette’s life as she runs off to join a traveling dance troupe. This character has shown a lot of growth without sacrificing the parts of her that make her a unique voice that stands out from her more stoic and hardened sisters. The middle Kopp sister, Norma, is still more of a background character but I hope to hear more about her in the future books.

It’s not very common for me to start a series and then commit to buying every book in the series that comes out but when I see that a new one has been published it’s an automatic buy, or at the very least an automatic add to wishlist. I love a good historical fiction, especially when featuring a female historical figure I hadn’t heard of before, and this series is two for two.