Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan's Rescue from War Reviews

The Horn Book MagazineLastAirlift_C

“As the North Vietnamese entered Saigon, missionaries rushed to evacuate the most vulnerable orphans: healthy ones might find new homes, but ‘children with disabilities—like Tuyet—would be killed.’ Tuyet, eight, lame from polio, has cared for babies for as long as she can remember. With her help, fifty or so of these tiny orphans are loaded, two to a box, for what proved to be the last such flight to Canada; once there, it is Tuyet who shows their new caregivers that the wailing infants awaiting adoption could be comforted by letting them sleep together on blankets spread on the floor, as they’d always been—an emotional need she shares, as her adoptive family realizes after Tuyet spends a sleepless night alone in her new bedroom. A concluding note describes the return of Tuyet’s memories during conversations with the author, whose third-person re-creation of these transitional months in 1975 makes vivid the uncertainties of confronting a new language, climate, and family. Tuyet’s initial misapprehensions are telling (those points of light in the Canadian sky aren’t bombs but stars), as is her cautious, unfailingly coureous approach to a life that includes such unfamiliar things as play and ample food. Fortunately, her adoptive family is not only well-meaning but loving, creative, and sensitive. An excellent first step on the ladder that leads to such fine immigrant tales as Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out & Back Again (rev. 3/11). Illustrated with photos. Notes; further resources; index.”
—Joanna Rudge Long

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Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choices 2013

“The last Canadian airlift to leave Saigon during the Vietnam War was on April 11, 1975. The plane carried 57 babies and children, along with rescue workers. Son Thi Anh Tuyet was one of the orphans on board. About nine years old at the time, she was experienced helping care for younger children and babies—something she did all the time at the orphanage where she’d lived. So perhaps it was no surprise that when she first met the Morris family in Toronto a few weeks later, she assumed the couple with three young children had picked her to be their helper, not their daughter. But they had chosen her to be their child, and in the coming weeks and months, as Tuyet adjusts to life in the West, she also begins to understand what it means to be part of a family, and loved unconditionally. Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch never strays from Tuyet’s child-centered perspective in recounting her experiences. In an author’s note, Skrypuch describes interviewing Tuyet (obviously now an adult), who found that she remembered more and more of the past as she talked. Dialogue takes this narrative out of the category of pure nonfiction, but Tuyet’s story, with its occasional black-and-white illustrations, is no less affecting because of it.”

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School Library Journal

“Gr 3-6– Tuyet had little memory of her life before going to the orphanage where, at eight, she was one of the oldest children. She ate fish and rice, drank water, and could not remember ever seeing the sky. Her scars were from burns and injuries she could not remember, and polio left her leg weak. In April 1975, Tuyet’s life changed forever as she became part of the last Canadian airlift operation to leave Saigon. Along with 56 babies and toddlers, Tuyet was flown first to Hong Kong and then to Canada where she was adopted by a loving family, something she had never known. The author tells Tuyet’s story with respect and dignity, introducing readers to a brave girl caught up in the turbulent times of her country, her fears of leaving what she knew, and the joy of finding a new life. Archival and family photos are included throughout, as are a historical note explaining the circumstances surrounding the airlift and an author’s note with follow-up information about Tuyet. Her story will appeal to a broad range of readers.”
–Denise Moore, O’Gorman Junior High School, Sioux Falls, SD

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“Tuyet’s remarkable true story recounts the heroic rescue on a plane bigger than her orphanage, with babies hurriedly placed in cardboard boxes and an unknown future for all. With the new foods, her own bed, eating with a fork, using a toothbrush (instead of her fingers and some salt), walking on grass (instead of rice paddies), and learning that the lights in the nighttime sky are stars instead of bombs, it’s her adjustment to a foreign land and an adopted family that proves most fascinating.”

Kirkus Reviews

“As Saigon was falling to the North Vietnamese in April 1975, those who were caring for babies and children orphaned by the war worried about the fate of their charges. A series of evacuation flights called ‘Operation Babylift’ carried several thousand young children to other countries around the world.

Skrypuch (Daughter of War, 2008) tells the story of the last Canadian airlift through the memories of one child, Son Thi Anh Tuyet. Nearly 8 years old, the sad-eyed girl on the cover had lived nearly all her life in a Catholic orphanage. With no warning, she and a number of the institution babies were taken away, placed on an airplane and flown to a new world. Tuyet’s memories provide poignant, specific details. The nuns expected her to be useful; she helped with the babies. Naturally, she assumed that John and Dorothy Morris had chosen her to help with their three children; instead, she had acquired a family. In an afterword, the author describes her research, including personal interviews and newspaper accounts from the time. But Tuyet’s experience is her focus. It personalizes the babylift without sensationalizing it. The author has researched carefully and reported accurately, except where South Vietnam’s soldiers are called Viet Cong.

Immediate and compelling, this moving refugee story deserves a wide audience. (historical note, resources, index) (Nonfiction. 10-15)

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CM Magazine

“Fans of Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch’s books will know her most recurring themes are the effects of war on children and her young protagonists’ struggles to find family and home in the wake of it. In her first nonfiction YA title, Skrypuch explores these areas of human ferocity and need once again, but this time readers experience the story through the eyes of Son Thi Anh Tuyet, the girl who actually lived it.

Rather than using the first-person point of view that is common to memoir, Skypuch has settled on a third-person narrative to tell Tuyet’s story. Here, the choice serves to echo some of the isolation and estrangement Tuyet feels, while the real and telling details obtained by the close collaboration between the author and the now-adult Tuyet pull the reader into the emotional upheaval the child Tuyet has to deal with every day.

It is 1975, and Tuyet is eight-years-old. She is housed in an orphanage in Saigon, South Vietnam. She can’t recall a time before she lived there. Inside the orphanage, she can hear helicopters and airplanes, and bombs going off. But she can’t see them because the children are not allowed to go outside, ever. Outside, the Vietnam War is going on.

Then, in April, Saigon falls to the Viet Cong, and Tuyet is thrust headlong into a journey she does not understand and of which she is even more afraid than she had been of the war and her life in the orphanage.

In the world the eight-year-old knows, only perfect children are adopted or kept alive. Tuyet is imperfect. Polio has ruined her left leg and foot. So, she has been vigilant to find ways to make herself useful enough that the nuns who run the orphanage have let her stay and have given her food. But now she is removed from the relative safety of the system she has so carefully worked out. She does not know where she’s going, or why, or what will happen when she gets there.

On each leg of the long and exhausting journey, there are new challenges and terrors Tuyet must overcome. Young readers will find themselves riding an emotional roller coaster with her as she is taken away by strangers who speak a language unintelligible to her and put aboard a van, and then an airplane filled with screaming babies. Readers will learn what she endures as she loses everything she knows, or attaches to, including the only two friends she has ever had. Nor does her ordeal end when the airplane touches down in a foreign land called Canada. But along the way, her courage and resourcefulness allow her, and her readers, to carry on.

Overall, the 24 black and white illustrations serve to increase readers’ understanding of Tuyet’s journey as she experienced it. The tanks (ill. 2 1) and the photos of the babies (ill. 3 1) and the children (ill. 4 1) inside the plane give readers a clear sense of urgency and exhausting nature of the airlift rescue scheme, while photos of Tuyet, including her arrival in Toronto (ill. 4 4), and the Morris family photo (ill. 6 2) clearly show the strain and sorrow suffered by the little girl and her clinging to the man she is still afraid might send her back to her war torn country. In the end, readers also clearly see a transformation taking place (ill. 10 1 with Linh and ill. 10 2)….

The author’s endnotes serve to clarify…[why] neither the nuns at the orphanage nor any of the adults Tuyet met during the journey who spoke her language (and there were some) took time to sit down with the terrified girl and explain what was happening. But there is a credible explanation for that blank spot. The historical note brings readers up-to-date and lays the facts of why Tuyet’s journey was so necessary on the line.

Last Airlift is the story of an heroic deed, of one young girl’s courage and resourcefulness when she most needs it, and of the ending she could not foresee.

Highly Recommended.

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Resource Links

“Marsha Skrypuch’s gift is her ability to tell stories of under-privileged children in faraway lands. Tuyet’s biography demonstrates her talent. An orphan of the Vietnam War, Tuyet’s dream of being adopted wanes. The orphanage is filled with babies and other perfect children and Tuyet’s fears that no-one will adopt a girl with a lame foot. Because she is older than the other children it has a physical disability, Tuyet believes the only way she can remain in the orphanage is to take care of the younger children. As the war is drawing to a conclusion, the city of Saigon is invaded and the children are airlifted to Canada.

Here, Tuyet must learn how to fit into a new and different lifestyle. She is terrified and confused and alone as her one friend is quickly adopted. Her story is that of a survivor of a war-torn land. How she adapts to her new homeland and to the family who finally adopts her is a heart wrenching and heartwarming story. Tuyet’s story is an excellent example of the biography genre for young student; a multi-cultural perspective on being an immigrant child in Canada, and also a snapshot of a child’s life during the war. This biography is a useful source for discovering the ethnic makeup of a local community and the background of an immigrant Canadian. Highly recommended.”

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Canadian Children’s Book News

“Thought-provoking, heartrending and inspirational, author Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch’s first non-fiction book chronicles one woman’s account of a little-known piece of Canadian history: the Ontario government-sponsored Operation ‘Babylift.’

In April 1975, South Vietnamese orphans were airlifted from Saigon and flown to Ontario where they were adopted by Canadian families. This military maneuver saved interracial babies (with American blood) and disabled children from being killed… Written from the perspective of eight-year-old Tuyet, who is crippled from polio, the book gives the reader vivid insight into life in a Saigon orphanage where children never see the sky and subsist amidst a soundtrack of warfare. Tuyet’s story reveals not only the privations and misplacement caused by war but the assumptions made by well-meaning people about the desirability of Western customs and middle-class values. Plentiful food, her own room and her first family initially cause Tuyet mistrust, discomfort and even terror.

This simply written but masterfully perceptive story of human resilience and courage belongs on every school and public library shelf. Although it could be read aloud to Grade 3 students and independently by Grades 4 to 8 students (e.g., for social studies or language units), the narrative easily captures an adult. Forchuk Skrypuch, who has received numerous awards for her historical novels, enriches this slender book with photos and official documents. Historical and author’s notes, detailing relevant background to Tuyet’s plight and the author’s research methods, make engaging additions alongside a list of further resources and an index.”
—Aliki Tryphonopoulos

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Smithsonian Institute BookDragon

“Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch is one of those mega-award winning Canadian authors (with more than a dozen titles) who hasn’t crossed over our shared border (just yet!) with the same success. She’s best known for her historical novels for younger readers about what must be one of the most difficult subjects ever – children and war…Enhanced with documents and a surprising number of photographs, Airlift is a touching, multi-layered experience. The strength of Skrypuch’s storytelling shows strongest in the smallest details…”

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Winnipeg Free Press

“When the Americans pull out of Saigon in April 1975, many babies are rescued from the orphanage where eight-year-old Tuyet has lived for years. The orphanage is to be abandoned and the children left alone.

But Tuyet had polio and walks with a limp; she doesn’t expect to be chosen to go to a foreign country.

Ontario-based Skrypuch, who has written a number of award-winning books for young people, tells the true story of how this little girl is transported to Toronto and finds a loving home with a Canadian family. She makes us feel Tuyet’s fears, confusion and loneliness as she adjusts to her new home. Her book uses actual photographs of Tuyet and her family.”

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CanLit for LittleCanadians

“…Tuyet becomes a heroine of her own story, using her fortitude, observations, and humanity to navigate the new territories outside of the orphanage and to make herself fit in.”

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“Marsha Skrypuch has written two short books for young readers that tell the story of eight year old Son Thi Anh Tuyet, a Vietnamese orphan who was adopted by a family from Brantford, Ontario. Living in an orphanage in Saigon, in 1975, Tuyet  had been crippled by polio when younger and was suffering from psychological trauma as a result of  her experiences during the Vietnam War…

These two books will serve as a gentle introduction for younger children to an event known as the Fall of Saigon and also the Vietnam War. Skrypuch’s books can also be used as the jumping point for children learning about the Vietnamese refugees who came to Canada in the mid-1970’s.

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Manhattan Public Library Bookworm Buddies

“When this book came in, I started flipping through it at my desk because the topic reminded me of a Laotian refugee who was in my class when I was in 2nd grade.  I had to give up my lunch hour to keep reading because I couldn’t put the book down once I started. Tuyet’s story is so amazing. It beings in a crowded Saigon orphanage in April 1975, where Tuyet was one of the older children who had lived at the orphanage her entire life. She helped care for the little ones and put up with bullies and got along as well as she could despite her leg that was damaged by polio. On April 11, something scary and amazing happened. The babies from the orphanage were placed in cardboard boxes and put in a car, and Tuyet was called to go along with them. She did not know where she was going or why. American soldiers then packed all the babies into a huge airplane. Tuyet did not think she would be going in, too, but then a woman carried her to the plane that she said would take her away from the war to safety. Significantly, this Hercules plane was the last Canadian ‘babylift’ to leave Saigon with refugees. And this is just the beginning of Tuyet’s adventure, full of frightening new things and sounds, language she did not understand, and little to comfort her. Luckily, Tuyet was adopted into a loving family and given a new chance in life…”

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WPL New Children’s Books

“Based on personal interviews and enhanced with archive photos, Tuyet’s story of the Siagon orphanage and her flight to Canada is an emotional and suspenseful journey….”

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For Your Leisure @ Vaughan Public Libraries

“…Although intended for a children audience, Last Airlift is a pleasurable, fast paced book for readers of any age. Tuyet’s rescue is nothing short of miraculous. Skrypuch helps the reader see the journey through Tuyet’s eyes, from her brave attempt to eat ‘horrible slimy’ Catalina salad dressing to the first bonding moments with her adoptive father…”

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Ten Stories Up

“[Last Airlift] would make a wonderful story, even if it were completely made up. But it’s not. Last Airlift is 100% nonfiction…At the same time, it reads like a novel, with characters and dialogue, bringing the experience of a young refugee vividly to life…Highly recommended to history fans, native North Americans interested in other cultures, and kids who love survival stories.”
—Lindsay Carmichael

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The Nonfiction Detectives

“…Readers will immediately be drawn in from the very first page. The book only covers Tuyet’s journey by airplane from Saigon to Toronto, Canada and her adoption to a new family who loves her very much. When Tuyet is flying to Canada, another orphan, Linh, gives her some advise. Whenever someone asks you something in English, answer, No. That will stop them from doing what they were going to do. The last three chapters are most touching as we learn just how patient Tuyet’s new family is as they learn how to communicate with each other. (They do not speak Vietnamese) Some of the changes in Tuyet’s life were difficult. For instance, Tuyet was used to sleeping with all the other orphans on the floor at the orphanage, she is unable to adjust to sleeping alone in a bed in her own bedroom.

Historic black & white photographs, including some of Tuyet, enhance the reading experience.

In a historic note, Skrypuch briefly explains the rescue operation. In her Author’s note, we learn that Tuyet currenly lives in Skrypuch’s hometown of Brantford, Ontario. It is great to see Tuyet as a grown up woman.”

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Flying Off My Bookshelf

“This is a simple little biography/history. It’s the story of a Vietnamese girl, one of the last to be rescued as the North Vietnamese army marched into Saigon. It’s easy enough for a younger reader to understand and while it doesn’t soften the harsh realities, there’s nothing too graphic. It focuses mostly on Tuyet’s emotions and adjustment to living in Canada with a family.”

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Redeemed Reader

“[Tuyet’s] degree of deprivation can be eye-opening for the children of prosperous America, as well as an accessible introduction to this part of American history. (As somebody who was draft age at the time, it’s still hard for me to think of the Vietnam War as ‘history’!)”
—Janie, Redeemed Reader

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Apples with Many Seed

“The author conveys the desperate, rushed and tense atmosphere. We too feel claustrophobic as the door of the airplane shuts and the heat and smell closes in around us and Tuyet. Everyone seems kind to Tuyet but she has no understanding of why things are happening to her. Was she selected to help with the babies like she did at the orphanage or because she has one weak ankle and foot, the result of polio? Where is she going? What will happen to her once she arrives?

…[T]he story is fascinating. Being Canadian, I think of the Vietnam War as an American war.  Growing up during the 70s, even in small town Alberta, there were many ‘boat people’ settling into our schools and communities but I didn’t really know specific stories. Film, TV, and media usually depicted the American situation. I’ve seen footage of Vietnamese people desperately trying to get onto to aircraft as they were leaving Saigon. I hadn’t realized that Canada had much involvement.”
—Tammy Flanders

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Youth Services Book Reviews

What did you like about the book? This is the story of one girl, Tuyet, and her journey from an orphanage in Saigon to Canada during the Vietnam War. Tuyet could not remember life outside the orphanage where she is kept indoors and helps take care of the younger children. At eight, she suffers from the effects of polio, and does not feel she will ever be adopted. In 1975, Tuyet is among the orphans on the last transport out of Saigon as the North Vietnamese take control. She makes herself useful on board the plane as well as in the orphanage in Canada. She is adopted by the Morris family, who already have a biological daughter and two adopted children. At first, Tuyet cannot believe that she is anything more than a helper, but little by little she realizes that she really is a daughter and a sister. Black and white photographs and documents supplement this biographical tale. Told from the point of view of this eight year old girl, the story is quite informative and compelling. Readers who enjoy biographies will find much to admire in Tuyet.

Anything you didn’t like about it? No.

To whom would you recommend this book? This is a good choice to supplement lessons on the Vietnam War. Children who were adopted will identify with Tuyet’s story. It would also be a good choice for a biography assignment.

Who should buy this book? Public libraries and elementary school libraries.”

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