Soles of a Survivor

  • Review
By – May 24, 2021

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 bookau​thor​i​ty​.org. She is pas­sion­ate about her chil­dren, Israel, the Canaan­ites and chocolate.

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