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Originally published Friday, July 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"The Eaves of Heaven": a journey of extremes through 3 wars

In "The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars," author Andrew Pham tells the story of his father and the vanished idyll of life in prewar Vietnam.

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Eaves of Heaven:

A Life in Three Wars"

by Andrew X. Pham

Harmony Books, 319 pp., $24.95

In the early chapters of "The Eaves of Heaven," Andrew Pham's searing story of his father's life in Vietnam, the reader is lulled by idyllic scenes of childhood even as the country is descending into three decades of war. A sumptuous autumn feast and festival culminate in glorious fireworks. Boys roam the countryside searching for crickets and place their prize specimens in a pickling jar for a fight to the finish.

"It was the grand prelude to disaster," recalls Pham's father, Thong Van Pham, "and, for me, the happiest years of my life." The coming "disaster" was a succession of three wars, one with the French, who had controlled the country since the mid-19th century; World War II and invasion by Japan; and the civil war, the latter half of which became known in the U.S. as the Vietnam War. The remembered images of more tranquil, carefree times are what make the subsequent depictions of wartime terrors and devastation so heartbreaking.

In the early part of the 20th century, Pham family members were wealthy landowners in northern Vietnam. As communist forces gained power before and after World War II, the family's status and wealth rapidly declined. When the communists defeated France in 1954, the Pham family were among the 2 million refugees who fled to the south.

Each of the three wars had its unique horrors. American readers will be most familiar with accounts of the Tet Offensive and the fall of Saigon. But the Vietnamese endured waves of occupying armies, marauding mercenaries, a famine that killed 2 million people (caused by the Japanese depletion of rice fields to feed their own troops) and forbidding re-education camps. As a young man, Pham's father faced tremendous pressure to join the resistance movement against the French. He was eventually drafted into the South Vietnamese army and saw heavy combat.

"Eaves" is an unusual variant of the memoir. Andrew Pham, winner of the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Award for his own memoir, "Catfish and Mandala," provides a cogent explanation, in an author's note, for his use of the first-person voice: "I did not set out to write my father's biography. I have not written my father's memoir. I have lent his life stories my words. The perspectives and sentiments within are his."

Instead of offering a comprehensive history, Pham moves back and forth in time, from war to war, with periodic returns to the subject's childhood. To help orient the reader, he lists the setting and year at the start of chapters. The contrapuntal composition creates a surprising and pleasing rhythm and reminds us that memory is neither linear nor sequential.

Pham has a novelist's eye for telling detail with sentences like this: "Naked toddlers stood in doorways, knuckling sleep from their eyes."

He writes equally vivid — and harrowing — war scenes. Some of the particulars of the violence are almost too much to bear. But the book is grounded in happier times. "Some joys were so simple as to be incorruptible in memory, untouchable, neither by distance nor by tragedy," he writes.

Here is war and life through the eyes of a Vietnamese everyman: Although buffeted by many circumstances beyond his control, Thong Van Pham never loses his basic humanity or love of family.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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