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Lost in Translation
By Margaret Black

Pushed to Shore
By Kate Gadbow
Sarabande Books, 307 pages, $13.95

The novel Pushed to Shore sets us gently among a class of Asians taking English as a Second Language (ESL) in a high school in Missoula, Mont. Under the charge of their teacher, “Mees Janet,” herself a refugee from 1960s campus radicalism, these Hmong and Vietnamese youngsters struggle to adapt to an alien language, an alien culture, and a totally alien landscape and climate.

We perceive events from teacher Janet Hunter’s point of view. Janet brings enormous good will to her class and a powerful desire to understand her students on their own terms, but she constantly stumbles, usually over the gap between their polite, apparently childlike innocence and their actual, unknowable maturity. It is only on a trip to the mall, for example, (to experience the World of Work) that she realizes her four Vietnamese students are actually city kids who despise being lumped together with their rural Hmong classmates.

The book’s title derives from a student story unusual in its detail and poetic expression. While most of the essays produce flat statements—“My name is Lee Thao. My father die in 1977. My brother die in 1979. We live in jungle seven month.”—Vinh describes in detail his harrowing escape and a horrific boat trip with three friends until they are “pushed to the kind shore by a finger of God.” The beauty of his work is immediately trashed as “accidental poetry” by another teacher, who asserts that Vinh has simply not yet learned the “correct English equivalents.” But more important than this particular drop of poison is Janet’s own crime, committed out of ignorance, which has been to share a story that Vinh meant for her alone to read.

Because we live in Janet’s head, we spent much of the novel on her attempts to make a new life following a failed marriage and an empty career as a middle-school teacher. A vast emotional gulf also separates Janet from her parents and once-greatly-loved sister, and she appears to have only one female friend. In part, the author’s focus on Janet works. Janet’s social isolation—her inability to sustain family connections or to build a new community of friendship—contrasts sharply with the experience of her students. Due to the determined efforts of their leader, the Hmong have come to America as whole families, for otherwise they would have been annihilated for helping the CIA in Vietnam. Even the four Vietnamese boys—whose families, if they still live, are in Vietnam—escaped together and now look after and protect each other. The girl students who seem so young compared with their American counterparts go home after school to care for their small children, to help their parents and husbands, and to function in the rituals of their community.

While we’ve already read about a lot of stories and seen a lot of movie and TV dramas about single women like Janet, the author does a good job showing what can be the emptiness and scariness of living alone, especially in a brilliant section where Janet becomes horribly sick with the flu. Through her one requisite female friend, who serves as contrast and foil, Janet meets a newly divorced lawyer, Taylor. She calls upon him to defend one of her students, caught deer hunting out of season, and his unusually sensitive handling of the case gives their relationship a strong start. Inevitable complications arise with Taylor’s son, Kevin, a well-drawn, sullen teenager preoccupied with his own affairs but also torn between his mother and father. In scenes where Janet, Taylor and Kevin are together, the awkwardness and tension are palpable. On the other hand, Janet’s almost total lack of friends and her sexual encounter with a bigoted, gung-ho Vietnam vet invalidate just about everything the author otherwise asserts about her character.

The real flaw of concentrating on Janet, however, is that we’re more interested in the refugees. We never really see beyond the surface of their lives, for Janet’s understanding grows only slowly and slightly. When she recognizes, for example, that one of the brightest Hmong girls may have good reasons beyond social survival in high school for encouraging the companionship of the young white thug she is dating, the book is moving in the right direction. The same is true when Western medicine fails to save Pao’s life. But we rarely get specifics, only Janet’s general recognition that she is wrong or her discomforting sense that she may be wrong.

One brief exposure to an adult ESL class—which the author never follows up on—shows Janet how inadequately prepared she is to reach across the cultural gap. No matter how many ethnographic studies she reads, what will she ever know about how these individual Hmong think and feel? What, moreover, should these newcomers have to do to become American? Can this be brought about and, if so, how? How much should Americans have to be alike? What must we share? And what can we preserve of our original cultures? More on this and less on Janet would have made a fine book superior.

Kate Gadbow was awarded the 2001 Mary McCarthy Prize for this work, and we can thank Sarabande Press, a small publisher with quality at its heart, for bringing out a complicated and highly pertinent story.

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