Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother, an American Daughter [Book Review]

September 15, 2020

Family in Six Tones by Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao

Family in Six Tones by Lan Cao (cover) Image: a mom holding a young girl

Genre/Categories: Nonfiction, Memoir, Refugee, Vietnamese American, Vietnam War, Mother/Daughter

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Thanks, #Netgalley #PenguinBooks @FSBassociates @AnnaSacca for a complimentary e ARC of #FamilyinSixTones for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Lan Cao escaped Viet Nam (and the Vietnam War) as a refugee when she was a child. The sacrificial love of her parents and the hopes they had for her future caused them to put her on a plane alone to travel to America to live with a distant relative. Leaving Viet Nam was traumatic and adjusting to a new family and culture added to the trauma, especially since she thought she was going on a brief vacation. Lan endures extreme culture shock (it’s especially sad that she can’t figure out how to open her milk carton at lunch), completes school, becomes a lawyer, marries, and has a child. Her daughter, Harlan, navigates two cultures and rails against her mom’s overprotectiveness. In this memoir, we hear both perspectives. As we understand that Lan’s fearfulness for her daughter is the result of her own childhood trauma, we also sympathize with Harlan and her need to fit into her American culture and be allowed some freedom. This is an “own voices” story of loss, trauma, a mother/daughter relationship, and the refugee experience.

My Thoughts:

Refugee Experience: Reading Family in Six Tones immerses us in the refugee experience…..the loss, the trauma, the fear, the uncertainty, the confusion, and the longing for home. Lan provides many details about her experience that helps us feel what it would be like if we were in her situation. As a teacher, my heart broke for Lan when she couldn’t open her milk carton at lunch and the children laughed at her.

Loss and Trauma: When immigrants come to another country, they come with a dream, but refugees are fleeing for their lives and are running from trauma more than they are pursuing a dream. Even though they are grateful to be in a safer place, it hasn’t been of their own choosing. The adjustment to a different culture is complicated by the trauma and loss they have experienced. Not only is the loss and trauma a factor in adjusting to their new country, but their past experiences affect the way they raise their children. Lan’s traumatic experiences cause her to be overprotective with her daughter….always imagining that the worst could happen and being overprepared for any turn of events. The author does a fantastic job of sharing these situations in a way that we compassionately empathize with the underlying motivations.

Mother/Daughter: All of the trauma affects the relationship between Lan and her daughter. We often notice that children of immigrants want to assimilate and identify more with the new culture than the parents’ culture and that this can cause tension in the family. However, the trauma that Lan experienced causes her to parent Harlan with great fear so that Harlan also develops fears and uncertainties. Harlan eventually grows rebellious. An interesting element in the memoir is hearing from both perspectives. As observers, we can empathize with both Lan and Harlan. The hopeful note is that they both love each other very much and love can mitigate fear-based parenting when children are old enough to see parents objectively as hurting people and when parents can let young adults make their own decisions. I was left with hope for their relationship.

Content Considerations: references to war, PTSD, racism, bullying

Recommended: I’m definitely recommending Family in Six Tones for readers who might work with or know refugees, for those who are interested in reading more about the Vietnam War from a refugee’s perspective, and for fans of thought-provoking memoir. It is an honest, heartfelt, detailed, and ambitious read.

My Rating:  4 Stars

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Family in Six Tones by Lan Cao (cover) Image: a mother hold her young daughter

Family in Six Tones Information

Related: Other books I’ve read and reviewed about Vietnam or Vietnam refugees: The Mountains Sing, Inside Out and Back Again (scroll down page for brief review)

Other books I’ve read and recommend with Refugee themes: The Boat People, The Beekeeper of Aleppo, Refugee, The Girl With Seven Names

Meet the Author, Lan Cao

Author Lan Cao

Lan Cao is the author of the novels Monkey Bridge and The Lotus and the Storm. She is also a professor of law at the Chapman University School of Law, specializing in international business and trade, international law, and development. She received her Juris Doctor from Yale Law School.

I’m linking up today with The 2020ReadNonFic Challenge hosted by Book’d Out.


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  1. I added this one after reading another great review (might have been on Nikki’s blog) and it sounded quite interesting. Glad you liked it as well.

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