Twelve-year-old Nhi Aronheim walked through the jungles of Cambodia barefoot, seeking a better life in America; the title of her affecting memoir, Soles of a Survivor, references the physical scars she still bears from that treacherous ordeal. Metaphorically, the title might also represent how she has consistently placed one foot in front of the other despite the pain.
The memoir is divided into three parts. In the first, “Remembering,” Aronheim recalls her difficult childhood in Vietnam. Her mother and four siblings live in Saigon in one room with no electricity, a leaky roof, and a “helly hole” for a toilet. In 1987, her mother bribes someone to smuggle her daughter out of Vietnam. The harrowing trip includes the trek through the Cambodian jungle, a raging storm, and Aronheim being dumped on a deserted island without water or food, then rescued fortuitously by a Thai military ship and spending two years in a refugee camp in Thailand. Those experiences mark the beginning of Aronheim’s thinking about the concept of a personal God to whom one might cry out in times of distress.
The second section, “My New Life in America,” lands her in Louisville, Kentucky, where her older sister and her family live. Aronheim is a hardworking and gifted student. Her teacher, Mary Lou, takes an interest in her and offers her tutoring, ultimately becoming her legal guardian and de facto mother. The emotional conflict between Aronheim’s two identities and worlds — Vietnam, with her strong-willed biological mother and everyone she left behind; America, with her new friends and adoptive Christian mother — are poignant and described in raw-to-the-bone terms. How much can you assimilate without losing your own identity? How can you not assimilate if you want to survive and thrive?
In “Becoming,” Aronheim graduates from college and finds a good job in an all-male tech company. She meets her future husband, Jeff, who is Jewish, when he helps her put her luggage in his overhead space on an airplane.
Pulling the disparate threads of a life together to tell a cohesive story is always challenging, but especially so when the threads belong to vastly different worlds. It is to Aronheim’s credit that she doesn’t simply narrate the events, but spends time reflecting on her experiences and how they have affected her. She realizes that she learned to numb her emotions in order to survive, something that will affect her relationships with others. She understands her mother’s pain that, in sending her daughter to America, she would in some sense lose her to her new life. She also acknowledges the role that fate has played in her life, particularly in the people she met at critical junctures. She recognizes a parallel between the Jewish and Vietnamese cultures: the history of both is one of resilience and hope, as is her own story.
Aronheim’s journey to Judaism is an intriguing part of the story, but the internal conflicts between her past and present, her attempt to reconcile the worlds she lives in, and her fearlessness in embracing change make for a dynamic and sympathetic drama.
Told in straightforward, accessible prose, and with enormous generosity of spirit and searing honesty, Soles of a Survivor invites the reader into a woman’s heart — and her soul.
Angela Himsel’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Jewish Week, the Forward and elsewhere. Her memoir is listed in the 23 Best New Memoirs at bookauthority.org. She is passionate about her children, Israel, the Canaanites and chocolate.