Mai is NOT happy that she has to go to Vietnam for the summer, since she and her friend Montana have plans to hang out at the beach all summer near their homes in Laguna, California. Mai's grandmother (Ba) wants to return to her native country because she thinks that her husband (Ong), missing in action in 1966, might still be alive, a belief reinforced by a Vietnamese detective. Mai's mother is a high powered lawyer with a case to argue, and her father spends time in the mountains of Vietnam, repairing cleft palates and performing other minor operations, so it is left to Mai to stay and help her grandmother. Visiting her grandmother's village, Mai meets a host of relatives, including a cousin her age, Ut. Mai gets to experience the hot, sticky climate of Vietnam, the endless food pressed on them by well-meaning relatives, and lots of village customs. Since she can understand the language better than she can speak it, and has some help translating from Minh, a boy her age who has gone to school in Texas, she is able to understand what is going on around her. Her grandmother is told that her husband left a message for her, but finding out where this is takes some detective work as well as a difficult journey for the two, but her grandmother is finally able to accept the passing of her much beloved husband.
I loved that Mai was irritated with her parents and grandmother even though she loves them dearly and knows they are good people-- that quality of being so irritated that one flops down on a bed and screams into a pillow is so uniquely middle grade, and made this story extremely relateable. Also adding to the appeal for middle grade readers was the small side story on Mai's relationship with her friend Montana, and her concern that Montana would gain the affection of a boy she liked.
Reader who like to read books that let them travel from their armchairs, such as Krishnaswami's The Grand Plan to Fix Everything (India), Lin's Dumpling Days or the Students Across the Seven Seas series will delight in this opportunity to not only travel to Vietnam, but to spend time there with family!