Nikki Giovanni defines poetry as "pure energy horizontally contained," and that's exactly what the best novels in verse offer: energy and immediacy in the voice of the narrator and poetic lines direct to the mind, heart and spirit of the characters. In Ann Burg's fine novel in verse, Matt Pin is a refugee from the war in Vietnam. As he says of his new home in the United States, "There are no mines here, / no flames, no screams / no sounds of helicopters / or shouting guns. I am safe." He is safe, but he is displaced and haunted by his past. His American father left him, his Vietnamese mother gave him away to American soldiers to airlift him out of Saigon, and he feels guilty for the little brother who was horribly injured by a landmine blast while in Matt's care.
Now he feels like a stranger in a strange land, the "Vietnamese kid, / the one who reminds everyone / of the place they all want to forget." "My brother died / because of you," whispers a boy at school. But gradually—with the help of Jeff, a vet who teaches Matt piano, a baseball coach with struggles of his own, a loving American family and the Veteran Voices meetings he attends—Matt begins to find a place for himself, and his screaming nightmares give way to reflections and then to talking about his experiences, gaining acceptance even from the boy at school who calls him frog-face.
Burg's verse places readers into Matt's mind as he begins to piece together a remembrance of his life in Vietnam out of "a pocketful / of broken pieces." Burg has a facility for the surprising image: "tanks lumbered / in the roads / like drunken elephants, / and bombs fell / from the sky / like dead crows." When Matt plays catch with his American father in the evening, the ball goes "Back and forth / back and forth, / until dusk creeps in / and the ball / is just a swiftly / moving shadow / fading into darkness."
By the end of the novel, Matt has found an acceptance of who he is. He has forged wholeness out of all the broken pieces of his life; he likes his American family, his piano lessons, baseball and his American little brother, but he also is determined to someday find his Vietnamese brother. And readers feel reassured that Matt is going to be OK.
Dean Schneider teaches middle school English. Copyright 2009 BookPage Reviews.
Horn Book Magazine Reviews 2009 #3
When Saigon fell, a couple of years before the start of this affecting verse novel, war refugee Matt was airlifted out of Vietnam; now he has been adopted by an American couple. The seventh-grader has two passions-piano and baseball-and one secret: he still feels responsible for the horrific injuries his little brother sustained in Vietnam on the day Matt didn't watch him closely enough. Matt is a child of war, and those painful memories are adeptly captured by the fleeting but powerful images of Burg's free verse: "We did not talk about / the American War, / how tanks lumbered / in the roads / like drunken elephants, / and bombs fell / from the sky / like dead crows." While Matt has made rapid strides in assimilating into American culture, there are some bumps in the road. First, when he becomes the star pitcher on his baseball team, some of his teammates resent him and respond with racist behavior. Second, his piano teacher introduces him to a support group of Vietnam veterans, but Matt initially can't get beyond his guilt enough to join in. Both experiences eventually allow him to work through his past and understand that remembering is not only healing but can open the door to hope: "His name is Huu Hein. / He followed me everywhere. / He follows me still, / and one day, / we're going to find him." Copyright 2009 Horn Book Magazine Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2009 February #2
Matt Pin's story, told in first-person verse, opens with the evacuation of refugees near the end of the Vietnam War. Afterward Matt, an Amerasian, is adopted by a loving American family. Two years later, he remains haunted by a past in which his soldier father abandoned him, his mother gave him up and his brother was maimed before his eyes. He suffers deeply from prejudice when he tries out for the school baseball team and from his misunderstanding of both his biological and adoptive families' motives. Through the efforts of two veterans, Matt begins to understand that his mother gave him away because she loved him, not because he was culpable in the crippling of his brother. In recognizing the analogous suffering endured by others touched by the war, Matt begins to resolve the conflicts of his spirit. Graceful symmetries between brother and brother, father and son, past and present, guilt and forgiveness shed light on the era and the individual. The verse form carries highly charged emotions and heavy content with elegiac simplicity. A memorable debut. (Historical fiction. 10-14) Copyright Kirkus 2009 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Library Media Connection Reviews 2009 May/June
Two years after being airlifted from Vietnam into an American home, 10-year-old Matt struggles to reconcile his old life with his new. The son of a Vietnamese mother and American soldier father, Matt now has a loving adoptive family. However, he can?t stop the memories of Vietnam?s horrors, nor can he ignore racial slurs from his baseball teammates. Matt finds comfort in baseball and music, with piano lessons from Jeff who was a medic in Vietnam. Matt blames himself for the mine accident that cost his younger brother his legs and hands. Jeff and two wise baseball coaches, one of them a wheelchair-bound Vietnam veteran, make it possible for Matt to share his secret. Telling his story begins new positive relationships and makes it possible for Matt to more fully integrate his old life with his new. Told in free verse, this novel is a quick read that will engage readers of many ages despite the relatively young age of the protagonist. It provides a fresh, personal prospective of the Vietnam War and may be useful for history projects. There is some early confusion regarding which father and mother (his birth or adoptive parents) Matt refers to, but that is quickly clarified. Recommended. Rose Kent Solomon, Educational Reviewer, Columbus, Ohio Â¬ 2009 Linworth Publishing, Inc.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2009 April #2
Using spare free verse, first-time novelist Burg (Pirate Pickle and the White Balloon) beautifully evokes the emotions of a Vietnamese adoptee as he struggles to come to terms with his past. Although he loves his American parents and new little brother, Matt misses the family he left behind two years ago, in 1975, when he was airlifted out of Vietnam. He feels guilty for leaving behind his toddler brother, who was mutilated by a bomb, and yearns for his birth mother, who pushed him "through screaming madness/ and choking dust" into the arms of soldiers. ("My parents say they love me./ He says/ I'll always be his MVP./ She says./ I'm safe, I'm home./ But what about my mother in Vietnam?") Matt's baseball coach and Vietnam vet piano teacher help ease his pain, but it is the patience and unconditional love of his new parents, gently emerging throughout the story, that proves the strongest healing force. The war-torn Vietnamese village that appears in Matt's recurring nightmares sharply contrasts with the haven he has in America. Burg presents lasting images of both. Ages 11-up. (Apr.)[Page 49]. Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.
Gr 6-8--In 1977, 12-year-old Matt Pin lives a fractured life. He is the son of a Vietnamese woman and an American soldier and was airlifted to safety from the war zone. Adopted by a caring American couple, he has vivid and horrific memories of the war and worries about the fates of his mother and badly injured little brother. Matt's adoptive family adores him, and he is the star pitcher for his middle school baseball team, but there are those who see his face and blame him for the deaths of the young men they lost in the war. The fractured theme runs the course of this short novel in verse: Matt's family, the bodies and hearts of the Vietnam vets, the country that is "only a pocketful of broken pieces" that Matt carries inside him. Ultimately, everything broken is revealed as nonetheless valuable. While most of the selections read less like poems and more like simple prose, the story is a lovely, moving one. Use this in a history class or paired with Katherine Applegate's Home of the Brave (Feiwel & Friends, 2007).--Heather M. Campbell, formerly at Philip S. Miller Library, Castle Rock, CO[Page 101]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.