Author Michelle Layer Rahal has brought us a stunningly honest and frank portrayal of the life of a Vietnamese boat person, in the 1970’s. In Straining Forward we read the biography of Minh Phuong Towner, as she is caught up in the tumultuous events of the Vietnam War, or the American War, as the Vietnamese called it. Told through the eyes of Minh herself as if an autobiography, it covers the full gamut of Minh’s life. Born into a relatively middle-class environment in Saigon, Minh had all the advantages of wealth and position and in many ways was immune to what was happening outside of Saigon, in the rest of Vietnam. This all changed though on New Year’s Eve 1968, when the Tet Offensive brought the war directly into her quiet, suburban neighbourhood. Having watched the deaths of her beloved Father and several of her siblings, at the hands of the North Vietnamese, Minh and her brother make a dash for freedom, that leads them on an horrific journey, including torture, detainment in prison, escape, a dangerous sea journey and finally from a refugee camp in Taiwan, to France, Australia and ultimately the United States. Minh, though, is deeply traumatised by her childhood and this trauma will be something she will carry for the rest of her life and will influence her decisions and behaviour forever.
Although Straining Forward is presented, by Michelle Layer Rahal, as a spiritual journey, a search for meaning in life and a relationship with God, it would be wrong to dismiss it as just another Christian testimony. There is much more to this book than just its spiritual nature. It is truly an eye-opener on the effect of war on children, on refugees and what childhood trauma can do to a person later in life. I particularly enjoyed the story of Minh’s life in Vietnam, after the North’s invasion. The trials that tested her, she faced with stoicism and bravery, but what they did was remove her self-belief and her self-esteem. She truly believed that she was unworthy of being loved and gravitated towards safety and security, rather than happiness, as her first objective always. That this become apparent much later in life, when she understood that in many ways she had turned into her cold, calculating mother, without her even realising it. This is an extremely powerful story and one that grasps both the frailties of the human person and celebrates the triumph of the human spirit over immense challenges. One cannot read Minh Phong Tower’s story and fail to be moved by the tragedy of her life, but also by her indomitability and her determination to succeed, even in the face of overwhelming odds. This is a story that lingers long in the mind after reading and it is something I can truly recommend anyone feeling down or depressed should read. “There, but for the grace of God, go I!”