In "Dragon House", the "street children" are the heart and soul of the novel. A heart and soul that beats and is alive with consciousness, thought, feeling, will and moral nature!
Iris lives on the 20th floor of a high-rise apartment in Chicago, Illinois. Her father has passed away five weeks previously from cancer. As a young child Iris was hurt and confused about her father's frequent absences and couldn't understand how he could love her so much but still leave her. As the years progressed and she became a teenager, her feelings of pain and confusion turned to resentment until she'd graduated from college and began to understand why her father had been gone as often as he was. He had some very deep emotional wounds leftover from the war in Vietnam. Not only from the atrocities of the war itself as one would expect, but most importantly to him, the "street children". Prior to his death he had begun to work on a center to house 20 female street children but unfortunately passed away before ever completing his dream.
Four days prior to leaving for Saigon, Iris receives an unexpected visit from an old neighbour named Mrs. Woods'. She has come to beg Iris to take her son Noah with her to Vietnam and explains that he had returned from the war in Iraq with one leg missing and half of his forehead. Iris had known Noah growing up and was devastated to hear this horrible news regarding the extent of his injuries. However, Iris doesn't understand what a man in Noah's condition could possibly get out of visiting Saigon, or how it would make him happier and better able to cope with his devastating injuries, but she agrees and tells Mrs. Woods that she'll take Noah with her.
Once in Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City, we meet Mai and Minh, street children who play a game called "Connect Four'' to win "one" American dollar per game and then turn the money over to a horribly cruel man named Loc. The atrocities Loc has layed upon these two children is nothing short of cruel and abhorrent and as the story progresses so does his expectations of Mai and Minh. The price of disobedience on their part is very high and totally devastating. The two children sleep under a bridge inside a traditional fishing boat that they swam out on the water to claim. The boat only contains a blanket and two extra sets of clothes each. However, it also contains a false bottom that holds $14.00 American dollars, a year of savings that Loc would beat them for if he ever discovered it. Mai and Minh hope one day to escape and leave Loc far behind but this is an extremely dangerous idea because if captured, the punishment would be severe as Minh learns later why he is missing one hand.
Qui is 51-years-old and her grand-daughter Tam is 7-years-old. Tam is ill with a fatal illness and Qui spends her days selling books to tourists to make enough money to purchase the pain medication that Tam so desperately needs. Tam's own mother abandoned her and is in Thailand. The sad thing is that Tam is dying and Qui tells Tam that one day she would: "...fall into a sleep that would magically take her into a different world, into a realm where children weren't sick, where they swam in warm seas, where they awoke each morning nestled between their mother and father." Tam so believed in this that Qui could never destroy this belief. Qui is beside herself with worry over Tam as she begins to have more and more bad days where her breathing is hard, she is tired, has no appetite, her heads hurts and her little joints ache so, so badly. The entire story of Qui and Tam will have you weeping on bended knees.
Iris, in the meantime, has settled into her hotel room and is frightened and wondering why she had come and thinking perhaps she shouldn't have and maybe just allowed her father's dream of opening his center for street children to die along with him. Hesitantly, Iris and Noah set out to find the Ben Thanh Market area where the center is located and are utterly stunned and touched to find what the sign reads above the center! Inside they meet Thien, her father's cook and assistant. Thien is a beautiful woman with a beautiful voice and the personality of an angel. She tells Iris about the "street children" who are dirty, their hair is uncombed, some are crippled, abandoned, and that the streets destroy them. They often begin to: "...steal, to sell drugs, to sell themselves. They have no choice." She tells Iris that her father understood this and it was why he wanted so badly to open this center so these children could come in off the streets and learn and be safe. Thien asks Iris to walk through the streets with her to see first-hand what she is talking about.
Noah as this point is still self-absorbed and drinking heavily. He enjoys sleeping because his world is dark and his body cannot remind him of his painful injuries, the loss of his best friend Wes in Iraq and his anger and hatred toward those whose: "...lies cost him his friend and his leg." When Noah is awake, he feels his world is actually dark. He is afraid for the world because he lacks the power to save himself from his thoughts, his pain and his hatred. He is spiteful of his loved ones as he is: "...envious of their happiness, their lives free of pain..." and the fact they can't understand his own suffering. When he looks into a mirror: "...he sees a stranger." He eventually reveals to Iris, his bitterness at government for what he saw as "lies" to the deployed soldiers, that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction but none were ever found. Although they did capture Saddam Hussein and helped and watched people topple statues of Saddam, his anger is due to the death of his friend Wes and others like him because the government lied about the weapons. He feels had the government not done that, they wouldn't have been pulled from Afghanistan and sent to Iraq and all those soldiers who died needlessly would still be alive today.
We also meet Sahn, a policeman who patrols Le Cong Kieu Street and takes bribes from store owners for protection and for Sahn to turn his head away from items they may be selling illegally. But...we also learn an important secret about Sahn which if anyone found out about, he'd lose his job and become destitute. The only person who knows his secret is Qui!
The entire message in this novel is about the plight of street children, not only in Vietnam but around the world. The suffering, starvation and costs to their hearts and souls is inconceivable. This is a huge problem in our society today and it doesn't get nearly the attention it should. In such rich countries like The United States of American and Canada, it's hard to believe that we too are affected by the plight and suffering of "street children." Wouldn't it be wonderful if every city, town, and village in the world had a center for street children? That is one project that I myself would love to be a part of!!!
John Shors has written a story that is of the utmost importance and needs to be read by EVERYONE!! Next time you pass that kid on the street and they ask for a buck, think about Qui, Tam, Mai, Minh and others like them, I know I will. This is one story that will stay with me forever!!
January 10, 2011