Virginia Barton

A story of survival

Catholic Herald, 22 February 1991      


Review: When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip (Pan Books, £14.99)


WhenHeaveandEarthChangedPlacesLe Ly Hayslip was born in Vietnam in 1950. For those with any knowledge of the history of  that place, in those times, that short introductory sentence presents a multitude of cacophonous images.

The war against the Japanese had just finished, the French war against the Viet Minh was drawing to a bloody close, and the American confrontation with the communists stood at the threshold, sword in hand.

This is the story of a village girl, a peasant ensnared in the upheavals of a country at war. Le Ly’s experiences are horrific, but she is a survivor: by tooth, claw and every other means at her disposal. Her tenacity is remarkable. Who can say, hand on heart, how he or she would behave faced with similar circumstances – a son to support, a mother and other starving family members?

It is a twin-track tale. Her earlier life in war-torn Vietnam is juxtaposed with her return journey in 1986, to find her family, her roots, herself, after almost 20 years of peaceable living in the United States.

The style is colloquial, the contents often sensational. Not pleasant reading; man’s inhumanity to man is sickening in fact let alone in print. The glimpses of village life, family hierarchy and its laudable conception of honour, make a framework against which every kind of dishonour and betrayal is impaled.

The question I was left pondering when I (thankfully) put this book aside was: how far is one prepared to go in order to survive?

Le Ly’s legacy of war led her to set up a charitable organisation in America to promote relief and world peace, the East Meets West Foundation.




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