The Vietnam War has generated a substantial body of literature since its end in 1975, but the same can’t be said of the civil war that raged simultaneously in the country of Laos. Paul Yoon’s novel Run Me to Earth, a pensive tale of war’s savage toll on innocents during and after the conflict, partially remedies that absence.
As Yoon explains in an author’s note, more than 2 million tons of ordnance rained down on Laos, a country half the size of California, between 1964 and 1973. That’s more than was dropped on both Germany and Japan during World War II. Thirty percent of these cluster bombs failed to explode on impact, leaving a residue of lethal, baseball-size “bombies.”
Amid this version of hell on earth, three local teenagers—Alisak, Prany and his younger sister, Noi—are recruited to work for a doctor named Vang who ministers to the war-ravaged civilian population. When these well-meaning but untrained children aren’t struggling to aid the doctor in an abandoned farmhouse converted into an ill-equipped government hospital, they’re navigating speedy motorbikes across bomb-strewn fields, guided only by “safe lines” of sticks and their own daring.
When helicopters arrive to evacuate the three young characters (as well as the hospital’s remaining patients, save for the dying, who are left behind), Yoon follows them to a prison camp run by Laotian rebels, a small town in southern France and even New York’s Hudson River Valley. Their subsequent acts of revenge, self-sacrifice and profound courage all resonate with their wartime experiences, when they were, in the words of one character, “still just children. Children hired to help others survive a war.”
Run Me to Earth is a melancholy reminder that valor isn’t limited to those who win medals on the battlefield, and that to many noncombatants, the question isn’t who wins or loses, but whether one will survive the madness.