Reviewed by Piper Toney
House of Sticks
by Ly Tran
June 2021, 368 pages, $27.00, ISBN: 987-1-5011-1881-4
Ly Tran’s heart wrenching memoir House of Sticks tells the journey of a little girl who escapes from Vietnam to America and grows up under the pressure of achieving the American Dream. It is a powerful statement on the long lasting effects of generational trauma, filial piety, and striving for success in a world designed against you. Through her writing, Tran successfully enlightens her audience to the huge difference between America’s image as the golden world and the realities of life there.
With their arrival in the U.S., four-year-old Tran, her parents, and her three brothers are astounded by the incredible differences between their new world and their old life by the Mekong River. However, they quickly realize that simply living in America does not equate to succeeding at the American Dream. In their tiny, roach-infested apartment, they struggle to survive. They turn their front room into a sweatshop, working their fingers to the bone to create clothes for high society events that they’ll never attend, all to live off of rice porridge and neighbors’ hand-me-down clothes. Her life is quickly defined by a cycle of work, abuse at the hands of her father, and an urgency to escape her old life in Vietnam, which is all fueled by her constant fear of the “pain of rejection.”
No matter how much she’d like to leave it behind, Vietnam begins to define her experiences in the U.S. Her father, a war veteran grappling with PTSD, takes out his anger on his children and wife at not immediately finding success in America. As a result, Tran’s relationship with her father becomes strained, and she struggles to reconcile her resentment toward him with the necessity of filial piety that she has been taught her entire life. Her father has always cherished educational success, but when Tran is told that she needs glasses to see the board in her classrooms, he refuses, believing that, as learned in war in Vietnam, total self-sufficiency is the only way to control your life. As a result, her eyesight massively deteriorates, creating a “nightmare [out] of school,” and causing her grades to slip, which redoubles the abuse that her father puts her through. For years, she suffers that nightmare in silence, both at school and at home.
When she gets to college, Tran feels that she has finally escaped the parameters of her past, but they quickly consume her again. For years, she battles seemingly-impenetrable depression in the hope that she will finally make her parents proud by succeeding at the American Dream. To her, that means making their lives as easy as possible. As she reiterates throughout the book, she “didn’t want to cause them any pain or trouble,” which she uses as the reasoning behind many of her choices. Eventually, after years of therapy and questioning whether she “deserves” to live a fulfilling life, she is finally able to take hold of her future and lift herself into the life of achievement that she has always strived for.
One of the most engaging parts of House of Sticks is Tran’s incredible ability to trace her life along several consistent threads. Most notably, she proposes a sense of urgency in almost every scene. There was always a sense of “urgency in [her father’s] voice and… actions,” which she references over and over again, always tying her struggles back to his intense desire for his family’s escape from the constraints of the Vietnam War. This consistency really helps the reader understand the underlying connections between the various stages of Tran’s life without Tran having to spell it out directly. It keeps the reader’s mind engaged and creates similarities between parts of the book that seem like they would have nothing in common. Another thread that she weaves into every part of the book is the idea of escape. She always feels that she needs to escape her past, which fuels that sense of urgency. With the heartbreaking line, “[my father] was so proud of my progress,” she connects those two pillars of her life, reminding her audience of her constant wish to make her parents proud. Everything she does revolves around her father’s acceptance of her; to her, his acceptance indicates that they have achieved success in America and have therefore escaped his war trauma. By constantly signaling to her audience how he feels about her actions, Tran creates an engaging storyline that takes you on an emotional rollercoaster right alongside her, rather than feeling like you’re merely hearing about her life. So, one of my favorite parts of House of Sticks is the consistent tying of one scene to the next through both implied and outright analysis of their connections to her family’s generational trauma.
However, that sense of being present inside Tran’s life fades slightly in the book’s final chapters. It’s obvious that many of the book’s ending scenes, which are some of the most thought provoking and emotionally difficult in the book, were incredibly hard for Tran to write, as they must have taken enormous self reflection and acknowledgement of the extent of her trauma. To that end, the forced quality of the last few chapters’ writing does make it marginally more difficult for the reader to connect with her story than in the beginning. However, the importance of the story to the reader is not diminished. I think producing two books, rather than one, would’ve been a slightly more successful way of sharing her story. Right now, it feels like there is not enough space allocated in the book to her time as an adult. So, having two books, one of her life before and during her time at Hunter College and one focused on her time after, would have given Tran the mental space to fully acknowledge her past and the page space to explain it in thorough and emotional detail. Although Tran’s “voice eluded [her]” when she was actually living much of her life, I don’t want it to elude her in her writing.
Ly Tran’s House of Sticks beautifully captures what it means to be an immigrant in America: the struggle to adapt to your new world’s norms, the desperate desire to succeed there, and the love and heartache that your old life still haunts you with. The juxtaposition of holding onto her old identity while embracing her American one with her belief that escaping everything that is connected to Vietnam is the only way to succeed in the U.S. draws the reader in with the perpetual tension in her mind and heart, which Tran eventually evolves into the understanding that “[her father] was trying to save [their] lives” rather than ruin them. Tran’s engaging prose is a must read for anyone even remotely interested in the truth behind the facade of the American Dream. Reading House of Sticks makes you appreciate every single one of your blessings and creates a humbling perspective on life in the U.S. As her fantastic writing brings every scene to life, you fall in love with Tran’s word choice, imagery, and most of all her incredible perseverance.