“Noodle Pie” by Ruth Starke

“We’re home,” Andy’s father says as the plane touches down at the Hanoi airport, but it isn’t home to Andy. Although his father was one of the “boat people” who made a dangerous escape from Vietnam, Andy lives in Australia, where his father settled. In this multicultural middle school book, he’s about to visit relatives he’s never met.

Culture shock sets in quickly: risking death to cross the street through insane traffic; vendors cooking on small charcoal fires on the sidewalk; street kids selling postcards for $5.00 apiece, loudspeakers broadcasting the news to the neighborhood before dawn. In addition, Andy has questions. Why is his father wearing a gold watch and diamond ring that Andy’s never seen before? And why was he told that the family owned a fancy restaurant when it’s just a hole in the wall? When Andy and his father hand out the gifts they brought, their relatives squabble and grab, even though most gifts are no more than shampoo or toothpaste. Andy feels they’re selfish and unappreciative.

It takes a while to learn who all of his relatives are, but he quickly notices that his thirteen-year-old cousin Minh is at the bottom of the food chain. She’s basically an unpaid servant, working hard in the restaurant for no pay. Later on, while she’s supposed to be at school, he sees her out in the streets, part of a group of street kids selling postcards and souvenirs to the tourists. He talks to her and she tells him why she does it.

The family restaurant may be barely the size of Andy’s bedroom at home, but he quickly discovers that the food is delicious and that Minh is a talented cook. However, although the restaurant is busy with local customers, clearly it doesn’t make much money. He and Minh come up with a plan to help it bring in more income. The results of their plan and its reverberations in the family make for a touching and satisfying ending.

Andy is a likable, spunky, and humorous tour guide for our vicarious trip to Hanoi. I admired the enterprising way he and Minh carry out their plan. Andy’s father is a more complex and poignant character, happy to be back home, yet learning that “you can’t go home again.”

Author Ruth Starke includes some “extras” at the end: several easy recipes for Vietnamese dishes (yum!) and some info about Vietnamese street kids, including how we can help through an organization called KOTO.

Reading level: 10 and up