Stephen Gallup's Reviews > The Unwanted: A Memoir of Childhood

The Unwanted by Kien Nguyen
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's review
Nov 08, 2010

it was amazing
Read in November, 2010

As a student of memoir, I generally prefer examples that include a fair amount of introspection and reevaluation of past events. But analysis is more appropriate for some material than others. A small child living through apocalyptic times is unlikely to display introspection, and the adult author looking back on those times will be intrusive if he does more than simply provide the facts of his experience. Here, I was the one doing the pondering.

It's sobering to try and comprehend the multitudes of innocent people who have been caught up in and destroyed by events such as those described here. Everyone (of my generation, at least) remembers the iconic photo of people on the roof of the embassy in Saigon, grabbing the last helicopter out in 1975. If you want some human context for that event -- specifically, concerning those who could not evacuate -- this is the book to read. I also think it's instructive to experience situations like these vicariously, since one never really knows what the future holds. It's also a pointed reminder that good intentions are no guarantee of anything. The outcome described here is obscene in the context of the lofty principles the young people are taught to recite, and doubly so in view of the enormous sacrifices previously made there by Americans and others.

The prose betrays no indication that the author is not a native speaker of English, and indeed it includes judicious use of literary devices (the thunder growls like an empty stomach, veins stand out in someone’s throat like fat worms, etc.). It's an easy read -- aside from the fact that the circumstances described go from bad to appalling to hellish, and then to ever deeper levels of hell, proving Dante right. It also reinforces a history lesson that the world ought to have absorbed by now (at the time this was going on, my wife was enduring China's brand of Communism a few hundred miles to the north). It provides a study of what happens to human relationships when the very structure of civilization is turned on its head, and a warning to those of us in the West that we must not take our inherited way of life for granted. I'm left feeling concern for the author, because despite his escape at the end, nobody could live through these experiences without being severely messed up psychologically. I hope writing about it has helped him.
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