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Tangled Threads: A Hmong Girl's Story

Tangled Threads: A Hmong Girl's Story

by Pegi Deitz Shea

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For the Hmong people living in overcrowded refugee camps in Thailand, America is a dream: the land of peace and plenty. In 1995, ten years after their arrival at the camp, thirteen-year-old Mai Yang and her grandmother are about to experience that dream. In America, they will be reunited with their only remaining relatives, Mai’s uncle and his family. They will


For the Hmong people living in overcrowded refugee camps in Thailand, America is a dream: the land of peace and plenty. In 1995, ten years after their arrival at the camp, thirteen-year-old Mai Yang and her grandmother are about to experience that dream. In America, they will be reunited with their only remaining relatives, Mai’s uncle and his family. They will discover the privileges of their new life: medical care, abundant food, and an apartment all their own. But Mai will also feel the pressures of life as a teenager. Her cousins, now known as Heather and Lisa, try to help Mai look less like a refugee, but following them means disobeying Grandma and Uncle. From showers and smoke alarms to shopping, dating, and her family’s new religion, Mai finds life in America complicated and confusing. Ultimately, she will have to reconcile the old ways with the new, and decide for herself the kind of woman she wants to be. This archetypal immigrant story introduces readers to the fascinating Hmong culture and offers a unique outsider’s perspective on our own.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
First-time novelist Shea (author of a nonfiction title about the Hmong people, The Whispering Cloth: A Refugee's Story) deftly traces the physical and emotional journey of a 13-year-old orphan from Laos, who is assimilated into American society. Despite the characters' confined living space, the author paints a picturesque backdrop of peaceful mountain landscapes where water buffalo graze, and where "green shoots of rice peeked up from flooded paddies." After spending 10 years in a refugee camp in Thailand, Mai Yang and her grandmother travel to rejoin their extended family in Providence, R.I. While Mai Yang's grandmother reluctantly abandons her Hmong lifestyle (as Mai Yang hurries her grandmother along, the woman says, "Hush! My eyes are saying goodbye"), Mai Yang eagerly anticipates seeing her relatives and embracing the challenges of learning English and attending school. Upon her arrival in America, however, Mai Yang is shocked by her cousins' rebellious, disrespectful behavior. She also feels weighed down by her grandmother's childlike dependence upon her. While eloquently expressing how the threads tying Mai Yang to her heritage become entangled with new values, the author creates a delicate, credible balance between sorrow and joy, and builds dramatic tension as Mai Yang struggles to become American without losing her Hmong identity. Besides learning much about Hmong culture and attitudes, readers gain an opportunity to observe American society from a different vantage point as Mai Yang is inundated with sometimes disturbing, sometimes remarkable images of contemporary culture. Ages 10-14. (Sept.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
This month, families can celebrate Asian American Month by delving into Tangled Threads, a novel by Pegi Deitz Shea about a Hmong girl's journey from a Thai refugee camp in 1994 to Providence, Rhode Island. After ten years in the camp, 13-year-old Mai and her grandmother can join the family of her uncle, who helped American soldiers during the Vietnam War. Mai longs to taste pizza and ride in fine cars, but the America she experiences can be a confusing blur. Her Hmong girl cousins sport American names and clothing. Grandma refuses to learn English and relies on Mai to shop and deal with welfare agents. Then Mai discovers the great lie Grandma has told her. The only thing that seems to bind the two any more is their pa'ndau, the Hmong narrative story cloths they stitch. A poignant novel that turns on a child's ability to forgive and move forward with hope. 2004, Clarion, Ages 10 up.
—Mary Quattlebaum
Thousands of Hmong people came to the U.S. from Laos as political refugees in the 1980s, and this story is about one teenager who spent ten years in a refugee camp in Thailand before coming with her grandmother to settle in Providence, Rhode Island. The Hmong women are known for their careful needlework, the stories of their lives sewn into small murals. (I have one on the wall of my office in front of me, showing people leaving their villages, swimming across the Mekong, and entering a new life on the other side of the river.) This is Mai's story, essentially, except the threads of her family's life are tangled. Mai's parents were killed in their village when Mai was a toddler, and her elderly grandmother cared for her on the escape to Thailand and in the long years in the camps. This grandmother has taught Mai the ways of her people, and she knows it will be hard to keep the traditions once the family relocates in America. When Mai and her grandmother come to Rhode Island and live next to relatives who came five years before them, it's clear that the Hmong children have a difficult time adjusting to the new life and at the same time keeping the traditional customs. Mai's teenage cousins are breaking all the rules and getting into trouble. Mai does meet other Hmong girls at school who seem to be able to negotiate the two worlds slightly better, and through them Mai joins a dancing troupe that will perform Hmong dances. Shea has many friends among the Hmong community and she has absorbed their stories as well as read about other Hmong experiences: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is listed in the bibliography, for instance; the best-selling book about a true situation inCalifornia when a Hmong child was sick and her parents and the American doctors were totally in disagreement as to how the child should be healed. Another book listed is I Begin My Life All Over: the Hmong and the American Immigrant Experience; both these books have been reviewed in KLIATT. Shea tells Mai's story well, in a way that will appeal to other immigrant teenagers caught between two cultures, and all readers who are interested in other cultures. There are many emotional scenes, and Mai's experiences are filled with hardship and challenge. A Thai soldier tries to rape her at the camp in Thailand, for instance, and she finds a way to escape him, though her best friend wasn't so fortunate. This friend returns to Laos and leads a traditional Hmong life while Mai is starting anew in America; her letter to Mai tells of an arranged marriage to a much older man who already has several wives. In fact, arranged marriages are the norm for Hmong people, and this is one of the major conflicts in Americanized families: the girls don't want to be married so young (usually at about 15), and they certainly want to be free to choose their husbands; and perhaps their choice won't be a Hmong boy. Shea tells all these basics well in the novel, and she creates in the character of Mai a smart, determined young woman who is trying to figure out how to live in the new world. KLIATT Codes: JS; Recommended for junior and senior high school students. 2003, Houghton Mifflin, Clarion, 236p. bibliog.,
— Claire Rosser
Thirteen-year-old Mai and her grandma were able to escape Laos following the massacre of her parents, but the Thai refugee camp where they have lived for the past 10 years has hardly been a refuge. They have endured the pangs of hunger brought on by too little food for the tens of thousands of people living there, the brutality of the soldiers who watch their every move, as well as separation from their only remaining relatives. But now, they are finally able to join Mai's uncle and his family in America. The adjustment to life in a foreign country, its new language, strange culture, food, and religious practices, however, threaten to break the spirit of Grandma Yang, while causing hope, excitement, and confusion for young Mai. Their story is preserved on the fabric of pa'ndau, the ancient Hmong art of embroidery skillfully stitched by Grandma and lovingly passed on to Mai. It serves as the common thread that sustains their memories of the past and Mai's hopes for the future. 2003, Clarion Books, 236 pp., Ages young adult.
—Ingrid Seitz
School Library Journal
Gr 6-9-Mai, 13, is practicing her English in eager anticipation of leaving the crowded Thai refugee camp where she and her grandmother have lived for 10 years. Her parents were killed in Laos and her grandmother carried her across the river to Thailand. As their departure for America nears, Grandma is withdrawn and always stitching away at her pa'ndau (story cloth). Mai yearns for the life her cousins write about, a land of skyscrapers, Coke, and plenty of food, but her arrival in Rhode Island brings mixed reactions. Her cousins have become rebellious, Americanized teens. Her aunt and uncle half-heartedly embrace Hmong tradition while feeling indebted to Christian charity. Grandma's confusion over the day-to-day navigation through social-service agencies, stores, even church bazaars, makes her increasingly reliant on her granddaughter. Mai's efforts to respect her beloved grandmother and all she represents are at odds with the allure of new friends and an exciting lifestyle. This bittersweet story balances social and intellectual pursuits against the strained relations of a family tapping roots into a new homeland, and it shows the emotions behind weighing cultural affiliations against the sway of progress and prosperity. Adding to the growing ranks of contemporary novels about today's diverse immigration experiences, it would work well in conjunction with Fran Buss's Journey of the Sparrows (Dell, 1993), Linda Crew's Children of the River (Laurel-Leaf, 1991), and An Na's A Step from Heaven (Front St., 2001). A good choice for classes studying refugees, multicultural diversity, immigration, Hmong Americans, Laos, and the Vietnam War.-Alison Follos, North Country School, Lake Placid, NY Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
After ten years in a Thai camp as Laotian refugees, 13-year-old Mai Yang and her grandmother finally leave for the US. Mai’s thrilled: transition classes have helped her learn English and to familiarize herself with the American way of life, and she’ll be reunited with relatives in Providence. Despite the privations and casual rapes by brutal soldiers that were commonplace in the camp, tradition-bound Grandmother is less overjoyed. Once Mai has met her Americanized relatives, though, she has cause to be doubtful herself--and then appalled when her cousins reveal a shocking secret. Shea’s text successfully portrays the turmoil, excitement, and heartbreak that come with repatriating. Adjusting to a new country and culture is never easy; the ideal is to blend the best of old and new, as Mai seems on her way to doing by the satisfying conclusion. (Fiction. 10-14)
From the Publisher

"deftly traces the physical and emotional journey of a 13-year-old orphan...author creates a delicate, credible balance between sorrow and joy" PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, STARRED REVIEW Publishers Weekly, Starred

"Shea's text successfully portrays the turmoil, excitement, and heartbreak that come with repatriating...satisfying conclusion." KIRKUS REVIEWS Kirkus Reviews

"Mai wrestles with peer pressure and family expectations in a story that will resonate with immigrant students and enlighten others." BOOKLIST Booklist, ALA

"bittersweet story...of a family tapping roots into a new homeland...shows the emotions behind...today's diverse immigration experiences" SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL School Library Journal

"Shea captures the complicated emotions of a thirteen-year-old girl in the midst of enormous personal changes....multiple curricular possibilities" THE BULLETIN OF THE CENTER FOR CHILDREN'S BOOKS The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

"engaging...a delightful protagonist...adeptly uses...first-person narrative...important because it is the first YA novel...with a Hmong protagonist" VOYA (VOICE OF YOUTH ADVOCATES) VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates)

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
File size:
151 KB
Age Range:
10 - 12 Years

Meet the Author

Pegi Deitz Shea, a recipient of the Connecticut Book Award, has written many children's books. She lives in Rockville, Connecticut. Her web site is www.pegideitzshea.com.

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