Three homeless teenagers in war-wracked Laos in 1969 find shelter in a once-grand farm manor that has been turned into a crumbling, makeshift hospital. Cries of patients are echoed by the scream of bombs. There is little food. Morphine is running out.
This manor, once the art-filled estate of a debauched French tobacco magnate, is the opening setting of Paul Yoon’s gripping new novel, “Run Me to Earth.” The house is an eerie, exhausting place where the teens hold one another to survive — sleeping, as one says, “like young animals in a den.”
The teens — 17-year-old boys Alisak and Prany and Prany’s sister, Noi, 16 — help a piano-playing doctor, Vang, and his staff carry out medical duties at the farmhouse. They get around the territory on motorbikes. They are ostensibly on the side of the royal government as the insurgent communists, Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese, move stealthily through rural backwaters.
But they also are at the mercy of the government’s ally, the United States, which over several years will drop a massive number of bombs on the countryside. Many of the bombs fail to explode — until triggered later accidentally by a passerby.
This aerial bombing campaign in Laos, and its deadly aftermath on the ground over ensuing decades, has rarely been the subject of American fiction. While the bombing is a dreaded backdrop in Yoon’s absorbing novel, his story is less about the war than about the humanity and hopes of the Lao people living in the midst of its horror.
“A Cold War?” says a woman nicknamed Auntie, who helps villagers escape. “So many didn’t even know the difference between a Communist and an anti-Communist, they just wanted to survive.”
Yoon, highly regarded for his previous fiction, including the novel “Snow Hunters,” writes with a soft, measured hand. He calmly builds memorable scenes even when events turn violent.
The title comes from part of a line in a W.S. Merwin poem cited in the book’s epigraph: “I have worn the fur of a wolf and the shepherd’s dogs have run me to earth.”
The story unfolds in chapters that relate the experiences of main characters. Eventually it spans decades and takes on a global reach as scenes move from Laos to sites in New York, France and Spain. With the Indochina wars of the 1960s and 1970s darkening his canvas, Yoon brightens the mix with riveting colors of youth and innocence — even as they are being lost.