The Vietnam war is something I am pretty underinformed about, aside from what I learned in a few history classes and those classes, as any student of history knows, are biased. But perhaps what is more a disservice than some of the bias is the fact that the Vietnam war lessons come at the end of a long semester (unless one takes a whole class) and gets short changed. A lot of what happened goes unlearned.
All the Broken Pieces by Ann Burg is a novel about the Vietnam war without being about the physical war itself. This quick novel, written entirely in verse, takes place in the aftermath of the war. More specifically, it is set when Americans had the opportunity to save Vietnamese children Vietnamese children of war and give them homes in America.
Burg’s book opens with Matt, one of the rescued children, recalling something that happened in his life — but as readers, we’re left blind to what experiences he had as a child in the war-torn nation. His mom was Vietnamese and his father was an American soldier who raped her and left her. When his mother sends him with Americans, he is adopted into a family that loves him dearly and gives him every opportunity they can. He’s got a natural baseball talent, but even great talent doesn’t stop members of the team he made from making fun of him and his heritage. Tensions were high after the war, as it touched the lives of so many. Rob, one of his teammates, really dislikes him and goes out of his way to make Matt’s life difficult.
As the novel moves forward — and it moves VERY fast — we watch as Matt makes decisions about what he shares and doesn’t share about his experiences. At the same time he is involved in truly American pastimes, including baseball and music lessons, his mind reminds him of his uniquely non-American life. This comes to a head when he and Rob are paired for an exercise on the baseball field that causes them to come to total understandings of one another and of themselves. It is at this moment we as readers develop a total understanding of Matt and his life both in Vietnam and America. At this same time, Matt learns about how the war impacted other people he interacts with daily in America and he relates with them in a new way because he, too, is able to share his experiences on the other side. All the Broken Pieces is a novel that highlights cultural understanding in a way that readers of all ages can relate.
I found this to be quite a moving book; Matt is an exceptionally drawn main character with a great voice that left me wanting to know more. I felt like his adoptive family in hoping he would share his story with me and I felt great satisfaction when he did. Along with that satisfaction, as a reader I felt utter sympathy for him and his experiences. Moreover, this is the sort of book that left me as a reader wanting to know more about the Vietnam war’s outcomes and effects on civilians both American and made-American.
All the Broken Pieces is a Cybils nominee in the middle grade category, and while I don’t disagree with that age appropriateness, I think it might be better appreciated by those who are a little older. This is a story that has less in the way of action and more in character development, and the verse use is spot-on. Berg could not have picked a better way to share her story, and I am excited to see what she does in the future. I think this is a title that’s been under the radar this season, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it get its due come awards time. At least I hope so!