Across the Mekong River by Elaine Russell

Across the Mekong River by Elaine Russell is part PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and part immigration story set just after the end of the Vietnam War.  Nou Lee and her family were forced to flee Laos following the Vietnam War after her father fought with the special forces alongside the Americans.  His life and that of his family were threatened by the succeeding communist government, forcing them to take flight in the middle of the night across the Mekong River.

Across the river that takes some of the lives in an explosion of gunfire and rapids, the family finds itself in a refugee camp in Thailand.  To be Hmong family means duty and hard work for the good of the entire family from grandparents to cousins and aunts and younger siblings, and above all respect for culture and ancestors.  The hard life this family has seen from their days in Laos and in Thailand where they struggle to feed their children makes the dream of freedom in America even more alluring.

“On another, taller mountain deep in the woods, we built small shelters, tying bamboo poles together against trees and covering them with thatch.  I think we were there six months, maybe longer.  We could only plant a small vegetable patch and search for food in the forest.  But somehow our husbands found us and brought whatever supplies they could carry.”  (Page 22)

“A barbed wire fence surrounded Nong Khai Camp.  Three Thai soldiers stood sentry at the gate, brandishing their rifles.  As we drove into the compound, I did not know if I should feel afraid.  Officials would explain that the guards were for our protection so no one from outside could take advantage of us.  Through the barbed wire, I watched the Thai farmer we had just passed driving his water buffalo into his field.  He never looked our way, as if we did not exist.”  (Page 36)

Her parents struggled to keep the rest of the family safe and together as they remained in camp in Thailand, and when the promise of America came, many were reluctant to go for it meant change and adjustment.  In 1982, the Lee family moves, taking with it their hopes for a new future and freedom, but hanging over this new adventure are the ghosts of the past, which threaten to pull them back into the abyss and keep them from finding their place.  Nou, a young girl in a strange land and with no knowledge of English, is thrust into an unknown school and unfamiliar culture that since the Vietnam War has bred prejudice against those from Asia.

Her adjustment into the new world is anything but seamless and she’s forced to bury her resentments of her mother and family deep as she navigates peer pressures and bullying, even from her own Hmong family members.  As the family moves to better opportunities, her previous experiences have colored her perception of Americans and adopts a new name and a new life.  Although her thrift store clothes and restrictive customs tell her true story, she is leading not only a double life, but a triple life when Dang Moua enters the picture and her mother begins to talk of marriage and children.

Elaine Russell has a gift for bringing out the nuances of the Laotian culture, particularly that of the Hmong people, in the multiple family points of view she uses.  In addition to the cultural norms, she easily weaves in the ravages of war and its effect not only on the fighting soldiers, but the families they leave behind who face torturers face-to-face.  Across the Mekong River, the Lee family finds freedom, but it comes with a price.  Struggling to maintain their cultural identity in a melting pot of America, the Lee family not only struggles with the secrets of their shared past, but the secrets they now keep from one another as they vacillate between being truthful and relying on age-old customs that elders are to be respected and never questioned.  Russell has created a tale that leaves a deep impression on the emotions of the reader and raises questions about what it means to be American as an immigrant.

About the Author:

Elaine Russell graduated with a BA in History at University of California, Davis, and an MA in Economics at California State University Sacramento. She worked as a Resource Economist/Environmental Consultant for 22 years before beginning to write fiction for adults and children. She became inspired and actively involved with the Hmong immigrant community after meeting Hmong children in her son’s school in Sacramento and reading Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Since then she has been to Laos many times to research her book and as a member of the nongovernment organization Legacies of War.

This is my 63rd book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.


  1. I’m glad you enjoyed this book. I loved it, and thought it was really well done. I’ve never read anything about Laos before, so I learned some things as well. I think it’s one of the best immigrant stories I’ve read so far.

    • I really did like this one a lot, but I didn’t think the court case was necessary, per se…and felt a bit contrived to me, but it didn’t bug me enough to ruin the enjoyment of the immigration story for me.

  2. This has almost nothing to do with your post, but you have to read THE YELLOW BIRDS!!!!

  3. Oh — this sounds beautiful and intense — I’ll have to look for this as I read Fadiman’s book in college, in a cultural anthropology class — the overlap really intrigues me!

    • I really enjoyed this one. The contrived story about Nou’s courtroom stuff, I could have done without, but I really enjoyed the novel overall. It was a 4 star book for me, but Anna gave it 5 I believe.