“Run Me to Earth” by Paul Noon. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020. 269 pages, $26 (hardcover).
The novel begins with the stories of Alisak, Prany and Noi, three orphans who were friends before all experience devastating loss. They have to do what is necessary to survive in war-torn Laos in the 1960s. Recruited by nurses, they wind up one day as runners for a field hospital in an abandoned house. There they meet Vang, a doctor who hopes to help the wounded at all cost. The teens ride motorcycles across the country, marking safe paths, praying there will be no bombs, and traveling to other places to get medicine and food. We see their days of rescuing civilians and looking for resources as Vang finally secures their evacuation on helicopters, leaving the country. This move has its own consequences and sets them all on different paths.
This novel has an intricate plot that is woven together over decades and through many characters. While we follow the three orphans, we also meet other people affected by the war along the way. It can be a little confusing at first with the shift in perspective, which usually is also a switch forward in time. It is a great way to give different experiences a voice within the novel but still keep us in the same story as a whole.
We not only see through the eyes of orphans, but through the eyes of Aunty, a character responsible for helping save numerous lives, and a few other individuals. I was afraid at first that it would not circle back and give us closure. But luckily, we do find out in the end (mostly) what happens to everyone, and as far as it can go, we get a happy ending, which I always appreciate.
Even with a love of history, I knew little about the Laos war, or more specifically its part in a larger war. This book made me do some research. I always appreciate the writings and the knowledge shared when it is not a common topic. We as a society become fixated on certain points of history and we can find many historical novels surrounding the stories there. More uncommon ones help us see the world from a different angle. I am glad I was able to read this, especially as it probably is not something I would have bought.
The writing is very smooth, but the story can occasionally be hard to follow. As it switches between characters, we don’t always know how far the time jumped or where exactly in the story we might be. It is not told in chronological order. There are no chapters, but it is separated by different narrators. We are able to piece together missing bits of the story as we learn more and more through each narrator and the story they tell. With a new character, it can also be disorientating to figure out how they relate overall. Small things get mentioned about one person’s past or another event altogether that has little relevance to the story, but it does add to the general character.
As we learn more about what happened to the characters, we can see how growing up in such a rural and war-torn society has affected them. Some of them always feel displaced, others are lonely or unsure, and still others seek solitude. Not everyone makes it, and that loss follows a few of the characters in their dreams. I connected more with some characters than I did with others, and while Alisak was not originally my favorite, I did very much become wrapped up in his part of the story. Though it starts out slowly, this book becomes a page-turner in the sense that you want to see something happy come out of all of it.
Some of the characters also become refugees. So we see the story from the war-torn landscape of Laos more than once. We see it during the war, before the war through flashbacks and after the war when it is still wrapped up in the aftereffects. We see a field hospital, abandoned houses and villages, prisons and a hotel in the middle of nowhere. We see France, and America, and the places that they have escaped to. We experience torture, fright, terror and hopelessness. We see people fighting when there is nothing else to do, and a desperate hope of being able to be reunited. We see characters trying to right wrongs, or to uphold promises given. We feel loss that we may never experience firsthand, and a fright that could only come in a country covered in bombs. There is bravery in everyday acts, bravery in a desperate hope to set things right, and a bravery that only comes when there is nothing else to be done.
This book is less than 300 pages, but the author manages to pack a lot into such a quick read. It allows us to see the tragedy that war creates for the innocent citizens, and especially the children. Perhaps most of all, it shows how it scars those who survive – physically, mentally and socially – as well as the environmental scars of the land.
Yoon is the author of “Once the Shore” and “The Mountain.” His novel “Snow Hunters” won the Young Lions Fiction Award. He lives in Cambridge, Mass. For more information, visit www.paulyoon.com.
– Reviewed by Fallon Willoughby, first-year experience instructor, Southcentral Kentucky Community & Technical College.