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This is not overtly or particularly a story about the Vietnam War. It is, rather, about the effects of any war on the quality of individual lives—the dislocations, emotional terrors, and physical sufferings that national conflicts bring to the lives of all citizens. Wartski personally experienced the American-Japanese war, and she lived in southeast Asia just as the American Vietnamese War was building. In her Vietnam visits during this time, she saw the devastation already apparent after the earlier, ten-year French-Vietnam war that had ostensibly ended in 1954 with the Geneva Accords but never in fact resolved any of the issues that fed that anticolonial conflict. Thus, her empathy with and continuing interest in what happened in Southeast Asia—as well as her own ethnicity— fueled this story about Vietnamese boat people. Even though the experiences are not directly hers, the book rings true because it is about "issues and characters I myself could honestly understand and appreciate."

Although this is not primarily a political story, Wartski is clearly biased against the "New Government of Vietnam," her fictional name for the Hanoiled Communist Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) that abruptly ended American involvement in the Vietnam war when it entered Saigon on April 30, 1975. She suggests the well-documented ruthlessness of its "cleansing tactics" toward any Vietnamese citizens who did not agree with its policies, principally excessive taxation of already impoverished villages and eradication of centuries-old traditions by local "re-education" or, worse, total reprogramming in concentration-like "resettlement" camps. Her anger is directed as well, however, at human cowardice, greed, and malice of all kinds, and not all of her villains are Communist.

It must be noted that this book and its sequel, A Long Way from Home, were published in 1980, just five years after America officially quit Vietnam and before the U.S. had begun to adjust to its failures there. The war and its veterans were an embarrassment to Americans; the Southeast Asian refugees pouring into the country often generated Americans' resentment rather than sympathy; and the national healing that began with the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial on November 11, 1982, was barely a hope. Wartski realized that "it would be an unusual publisher who would take a chance" on such a "painful [and] controversial" subject as the Vietnam war and its aftermath. Westminster Press undertook the challenge, and though the books received some negative reactions (too "real," "too frightening for younger" readers), they were generally applauded for their honesty and timeliness. In fact, in 1980 A Boat to Nowhere won the distinguished Annual Book Award of the Child Study Committee at Bank Street College of Education for "dealing honestly and courageously with problems in the world." Nor is it out of date in the light of perceptions of the Vietnam War today.

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