Donovan’s Bookshelf Review: Recommended Reading
November Issue, 2021
Three Funerals for My Father: Love, Loss, and Escape from Vietnam is an unusual memoir. It captures the experiences of a large family faced with not one, but three separate challenges to escape the Communist regime that took over in Vietnam in the 1970s.
Jolie Hoang’s father arranged three escapes for his family of ten children. One cost him his livelihood. One successfully brought six of the kids to safety in Canada. And one cost him his life.
Three Funerals for My Father is presented in a dual narrative style by daughter Jolie Hoang, who juxtaposes her experiences with reflections from her father’s ghost.
This unusual approach allows for a more personal contrast between family experiences, opening with a captivating introduction that neatly sets the stage for the memoir that follows: “I died on June 15, 1985, when I was fifty-nine years old. My death was not natural. I died escaping Vietnam with my wife and my three younger children, hoping to reunite with my six older children who were living in Canada, halfway around the world. I died in the Pacific Ocean, trying to shorten the distance between us all.”
More so than most stories of immigrant experiences (even the ones replete with danger and drama, such as this), Three Funerals for My Father features a passionate disparity between generations and lives that captures and contrasts parallel worlds and experiences.
More so than most such stories, the saga captures the essence of life under Communist rule in Vietnam when a family is divided: “Word quickly spread through the neighbourhood and the schools that my children had escaped. A month later, we received word that they were safe. My wife and I could breathe again. But I had to keep my joy concealed from the officials who made frequent visits to the house to question me. They were eager to imprison the organizer so it was imperative that I keep my status as the boat owner hidden. Even without concrete evidence, they frequently threatened to arrest me. After about a year, as the investigation progressed, my wife and I felt we had no choice but to move to Saigon with the younger children. Saigon was a good hiding place but Phổ, Phấn and Lan Phương could not attend school and we could not have a permanent home. My remaining small family moved numerous times, from place to place, to avoid being caught.”
Daughter Jolie Phuong Hoang’s ability to give voice to her father’s experiences, concerns, and conflicts brings this world to life and furthers the cause of understanding immigrant ideals, experiences, and the trials many endure when embarking on the long road to freedom.
At no other time in history is this story and its underlying message so necessary as in modern times, as immigrants are maligned and questioned in American circles that traditionally welcomed them.
These experiences come to life in a rare look at sacrifices made during the quest for freedom, providing an intimate examination of hardship and courage that should be on the shelves of any collection strong in immigrant stories about Vietnam refugees, in particular.
Diane C. Donovan