Part I: "Saigon"
Tet is the first day of the lunar calendar. This year, 1975, is the Year of the Cat, and on Tet, everyone eats delectable treats and wears new clothes. Mother says that the way the children act today foretells the way things will be for the whole year, which is important, especially now. The Americans have just left Vietnam, and the war is coming ever closer to their home in Saigon.
Kim Ha is ten, and is learning embroidery and fractions. Her strong spirit is a little bit rebellious, and she loves the papaya tree which grows in the backyard of her house. Kim Ha, or Ha for short, was named after the Golden River. She has three older brothers who torment her. Brother Khoi is fourteen, Brother Vu is eighteen, and Brother Quang is twenty-one. The children live with Mother, whom Ha loves even more than her precious papaya tree. Nine years ago, Father left home on a Navy mission, was captured, and has not been heard from since. Everyone prays for his safe return.
Mother works as a secretary, and makes baby clothes at night to sell. It is hard for her to earn enough money to support the family. Brother Quang goes to college, and Brother Khoi has a hen who lays an egg every day and a half. The family takes turns eating the eggs, and are thankful for them, because food is not always easy to come by.
Even though everyone in Vietnam celebrates their birthday at Tet, April tenth is Ha's real birthday, and on that day, she gets to make a wish. Ha wishes for stories, so Mother tells her about her idyllic girlhood in the North. Mother was married to Father at age sixteen, then Ho Chi Minh came to power and everyone's future changed. The country was divided, and Mother and Father moved South, away from Communism. The rest of Mother's family did not come quickly enough, however, and the door between the two parts of the country closed, separating them, perhaps forever.
As the war approaches the city, sirens scream frequently, and school is closed a month too soon. Mother knows what will happen when the Communists come, but the family is divided as to whether they should leave. Then, in late April, the President resigns, and Uncle Son, who was in the same Navy class as Father, comes and tells the family to be ready to flee. Mother sews packs for everyone, and chooses ten photographs to take with her. Ha packs a battered doll among her clothes, and Brother Vu picks the fruit from the papaya tree so that the children can enjoy its freshness one last time, while they still can.
A rogue Navy ship abandoning the country will take the family away. Word travels quickly, and thousands clamor to get on board; in the chaos, Brother Vu, who is strong, protects the family. The ship is so crowded that there is fear that it might sink, but fortunately, a second ship becomes available to share the load. As the Navy ship makes its way in the darkness down the river to the sea, news spreads that the Communists have arrived at the Presidential Palace: Saigon is no more.
Part II: "At Sea"
As the ship continues down the river, everyone must stay below the deck, but when it reaches the open sea, things are somewhat better. The rations are decent, and to alleviate boredom, Mother makes the children take English lessons from Brother Quang. Brother Khoi is hiding something in his pocket; it is a dead chick, and he screams when it is taken away. When two weeks have passed, the commander holds a ceremony on the deck, lowering the flag of South Vietnam into the sea. Ha takes her precious doll and wraps its arms around the body of Khoi's dead chick. In a symbolic gesture, she drops it into the sea as well.
On the long journey, one of the ship's engines dies, and progress is very slow. When the Navy ship finally meets an American vessel, rescue is assured, and there is much rejoicing. The passengers are taken by motorboat to the island of Guam, where they live in tents and sleep on cots with many refugees who have arrived before. As the weeks pass, Ha's family settles into a routine: there are English lessons during the day, and in the evenings, movies are shown on a sheet outdoors. Brother Quang translates for everyone, and the girls flock to talk to muscular Brother Vu, but Brother Khoi is quiet, rarely speaking to anyone. Mother has an amethyst ring which was given to her by Father. She considers selling it so as to have money to buy fabric and sandals for the children, but Brother Quang objects vehemently to relinquishing this "last tangible remnant of love."
The residents of the camp must choose where they want to go. Many pick France, but Mother chooses America. It is summer now, and the family is flown to another tent city in sweltering Florida. Everyone is worried, because for people to leave this camp, they must be sponsored by an American family. A man arrives who wants a boy to train as a mechanic, and Brother Quang's engineering background impresses him. The man reminds Ha of a cowboy, and amazingly, the man sponsors the whole family to a place called Alabama.
Part III: "Alabama"
The Cowboy takes them to a big house. He is kind and friendly, but his wife is not. After a short time, he finds a house just for the family and pays the first three months of rent from money he has gotten from the American government. The accommodations are not the best, and Brother Quang says that the money has been given to ease the guilt the country feels for losing the war, but Mother says, regardless, they must be grateful. One of the first things Mother does at their new place of residence is write a letter to her family. It is the first time she has been allowed to send a letter to the North since Vietnam was divided.
During the long, boring days of summer, Ha struggles to learn English. She gets frustrated reading baby books. In Vietnam, she had been studying and enjoying great literature. The Cowboy takes Ha for a long walk to register her for school. Once there, the lady clearly pities her, and Ha feels anger. Ha had thought the Cowboy might own a horse, which she might one day ride, but in the first of many disappointments in this new land, she finds that he does not have a horse, nor has he ever ridden one.
September comes, and Mother starts work at a sewing factory. Brother Quang will go to work as a mechanic, and Vu, Khoi, and Ha will go to school. Ha does not want to go to school because she will be the only ten year old...
(The entire section is 2657 words.)