The Doll

By Agnieszka Matejko

by Nhung N. Tran-Davies, illustrated by Ravy Puth, Second Story Press, 2021/$19.95/24 pp.

The Doll isn’t a typical children’s story. An autobiographical tale by Nhung Tran-Davies, it tackles the refugee crisis, surviving stormy seas, and racism. It’s a lot to pack into a handful of paragraphs, yet Tran-Davies does that and more—she fills harrowing subjects with tenderness and optimism.

The book begins with a little girl waiting impatiently at the airport. She cradles a blue-eyed doll—her gift to a family of Vietnamese refugees. A mother and six children finally emerge carrying tattered bags. The youngest hides behind her mom as she reaches for the doll. The author, Tran-Davies, describes her own experience and says the moment “represented all the kindness, generosity and compassion of these individuals. I had no idea at the time, but it forever changed me.”

The plot that follows skims over realities that only adult readers will infer. Tran-Davies’s family were part of the 700,000 Chinese Hoa boat people who escaped persecution by the incoming communist government. Soldiers had blindfolded and shot at her mom and confiscated the merchandise she sold to survive. The family had to leave. In 1978, during the stormy season, they crowded onto a fishing boat with 300 other refugees, huddling below deck in the fish compartment, with no standing room. Tran-Davies recalls feeling nauseated as she lay in her mother’s lap in pitch darkness.

The family was luckier than most. Two days later they arrived in a Malaysian refugee camp. Tran-Davies recalls they were there for eight months “before we found somebody who wanted us.” That somebody was Father Gilles Gauthier from an Enoch-area church, who organized sponsors to bring them to Alberta.

The book bypasses the subsequent minimum-wage jobs and the mom’s loss of eyesight due to the strain of sewing, and concentrates on the gift that gave Tran-Davies the courage to dream and eventually become a doctor. The doll also served as a constant reminder of people’s generosity. The recent Syrian refugee crisis impelled her to organize sponsors and bring two single-mom families to Edmonton. The book’s conclusion comes full circle: Tran-Davies sits at the airport cradling a doll she offers to a little girl who just landed in her new country.

Illustrator Ravy Puth doesn’t over-sentimentalize such scenes. She accentuates racial differences, the perils of the voyage and the crowded refugee camp. At the same time, she has the viewer gazing up at much of the plotline from a child’s vantage point. The illustrations and text form a riveting blend of kid-friendly perspectives with adult news stories but ultimately speak with one voice to say: small acts of kindness can challenge global issues of turmoil and injustice.

Agnieszka Matejko is an artist and writer in Edmonton.

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