One Step At A Time: A Vietnamese Child Finds Her Way

One Step At A Time
One Step At A Time

Tuyet has found a loving family at last. Life in a strange new country presents many challenges for the young refugee, but she is determined to overcome them all, including the surgeries that will one day allow her to walk on her own in shoes that match.

Tuyet cannot believe her good fortune. Brought up in a Vietnamese orphanage and rescued from the invading North Vietnamese army, she has been adopted by a kind and loving family in Canada. Tuyet feels safe at last as she adjusts to a new language and unfamiliar customs. But polio has left her with a weak leg, and her foot is turned inward, making walking painful and difficult. There is only one answer; she must have a series of operations. Her dread of doctors and hospitals brings back troubling memories of helicopters, a field hospital, and another operation in Vietnam. It won’t stop Tuyet, despite her fears and her overwhelming shyness. She has always dreamed of having two straight legs, of walking and running, of playing with other children, of owning a pair of shoes that actually match. Now that she has been given a chance, Tuyet is determined to do what it takes to finally stand on her own two feet.In this sequel to Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War, Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch continues Tuyet’s heart-wrenching true story of courage, family, and hope.

Excerpt:Chapter One: The Night Before

Tuyet burrowed into her nest of pillows and covers on the throw rug between Beth and Lara’s beds. She kept her eyes tightly closed and hugged her Holly Hobbie doll, but sleep would not come. She knew that in just a few hours, her life would change forever.
Tuyet tried to get comfort from the familiar sounds of her sisters’ rhythmic breathing. If she was very still, she could hear the tick-tick of a clock down the hallway, and Dad’s sonorous snores.
But instead of sleep, the memories came.

A giant boom . . . fire and smoke.
Back and scalp burn with pain.
Hair aflame and smoking.
Doctors hovering over with strange instruments. The whup whup whup of helicopters above. Moans from other injured people in cots close by. . .

Tuyet thought she had buried those memories for good, but since her ankle surgery was scheduled, the terrors kept her awake nearly every night. She pulled the covers over her head and squeezed her eyes shut, but the images wouldn’t go away. Still clutching her doll, Tuyet pushed off her covers and sat up.
She looked over at four year old Beth, then at three year old Lara. They were both in deep and peaceful sleep.
Tuyet balanced on her one good foot and peeked though the curtains at the night sky. No helicopters, no fire, no smoke.
With the curtain opened enough to let the moonlight in, she looked down at her two legs. The right one was strong and straight, and her foot went in the right direction, but her left leg was no larger than Lara’s, and it was weak. Her ankle turned inwards, making her foot useless. She had to limp on the bone of her ankle to get around. She’d push on her knee with the palm of hand to make her injured leg move. She’d gotten used to the build-up of calluses on her knee and hand from doing this and she hardly noticed the constant pain in her ankle anymore.
What would her left leg and ankle look like after the surgery? It was hard to imagine.
How much would the surgery hurt? That’s what frightened her the most. She could handle the pain she already had but she did not want more of it.
Tuyet tugged the curtains closed, then limped to the bedroom door and opened it, listening for the comforting sound of Dad’s snores. But this night, even that wasn’t enough to keep away the fear.
Tuyet held her doll in the crook of her arm as she silently shuffled down the hallway, first poking her head into Aaron’s room. He was safe in his crib. She pushed open the door to her parents’ bedroom. They were in bed, bathed in shadows, fast asleep.
How she longed to crawl in between them. Maybe the memories would stay away. But she didn’t want to bother them. She got down onto the floor and pulled herself under their bed, huddling into a ball with her doll safe within her arms, little bits of dust tickling her nose. The space beneath the bed was just the perfect size for her. Dad’s snoring was comfortingly loud.
Tuyet fell into a dreamless sleep.
In the morning, beams of sunlight woke her as they lit the floor around her parents’ bed. Tuyet could still hear Dad’s familiar snores. She pulled herself out from under the bed and shuffled quietly back to her own spot between her two sisters. She closed her eyes and pretended to sleep, comforted by the thought of the secret safe place she had found to keep the memories away. If only she could stay there forever. If only she didn’t have to go to the hospital today.
Beth and Lara woke, but Tuyet kept her eyes closed. Tuyet could feel a warm hand on her shoulder, “Wake up, sis,” said Lara. “It’s your operation day.”
Tuyet squeezed her eyes shut. Maybe if she pretended to be asleep, she wouldn’t have to go.
She heard her sisters leave the bedroom, then heard morning noises down the hallway. Dad came in and knelt beside her.
“Time to get up, Tuyet.”
She kept her eyes closed tight.
Mom’s footsteps were at the doorway. “Why don’t we let her sleep for a bit longer, John?”
Tuyet didn’t know the words, but whatever Mom said, it worked. Dad got up and left. A little while later, she heard the car pull out of the driveway. Maybe he decided not to take her to the hospital after all.
But an hour later, Dad came back. “It’s time for us to go.”


Reviews:Jennifer M Brabander on Horn Book wrote:

“Readers will be…riveted” —The Horn Book Magazine on One Step at a Time: “Skrypuch’s Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War (rev. 9/12) told the dramatic story of eight-year-old Tuyet’s 1975 rescue from Saigon aboard a giant plane filled with babies in cardboard boxes. This sequel describes Tuyet’s adjustment to life with her adoptive Canadian family, the story’s drama this time revolving around the surgery she must have on her leg. Polio has left Tuyet with one leg that’s weak and smaller than the other: “Her ankle turned inward, making her foot useless. She had to limp on the bone of her ankle to get around.” Memories of fire, bombs, helicopters, and a hospital—things she thought she’d forgotten—come flooding back, and Tuyet is all alone in the hospital (no parents allowed) and knows no English. Readers will be just as riveted to this quieter but no-less-moving story as Tuyet bravely dreams of being able to run and play—a new concept for a girl who has spent her days caring for babies. Especially satisfying is Skrypuch’s portrayal of Tuyet’s growing trust in her adoptive family, whose love and affection never fail to amaze and thrill her. Illustrated with photos. Includes notes, further resources, and an index.”
—jennifer m. brabander

Deborah Vose on School Library Journal wrote:

School Library Journal: “In this continuation of Last Airlift (Pajama Press, 2012), eight-year-old Tuyet is now adjusting to life with her Canadian adoptive family, the Morrises. She is uneasy about sleeping alone after years in a crowded orphanage and is troubled by recurring nightmares of the war. In addition to the trauma she has endured, Tuyet suffers from the painful effects of having had polio. One of the book’s many touching scenes occurs when Mrs. Morris buys the child her first new footwear. She delights at the prospect of getting shiny red shoes, even though the left one could not be worn, due to her shrunken leg and twisted foot. Her mother does not give up until she finds a soft, red slipper that fits over Tuyet’s left foot, making the pair complete. Skrypuch only describes Tuyet’s first operation and subsequent therapy, and her first steps using a leg brace, an orthopedic shoe, and crutches. In her notes, she details five additional surgeries, ending with the operation that made the child’s legs the same length. To capture accurate details more than three decades after these events happened, the author interviewed Tuyet’s two adoptive sisters, her surgeon, and the hospital archivist as well as Tuyet herself. A historical note about the eradication of polio in North America and suggestions for ways to help make universal vaccination a reality are appended. The black-and-white cover photo of Tuyet’s face looking apprehensive and earnest is of a better quality than the handful of rather grainy ones in the text. An inspiring story that will appeal to a wide audience.”

on Kirkus:

New in Canada and unable even to understand the language, Tuyet faces a painful operation to straighten an ankle bent by polio years earlier in Vietnam. Skrypuch continues the story she began in Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War (2012), but it’s not necessary to have read the first to appreciate this true story of healing. Drawing on her subject’s reminiscences, the author describes Tuyet’s operation and subsequent recovery with sympathy and respect. Although this takes place in 1975, it seems immediate. Seven-year-old Tuyet secretly dreams of being able to kick a ball and play with other children. As long as she can remember, she has only been able to watch. Shortly after her adoption by the Morris family, a Vietnamese-speaking woman comes to explain that she will be having an operation. After, another Vietnamese speaker visits her in the hospital and gives her a piece of paper with Vietnamese and English words she can point to when she needs something. Otherwise, this brave child endures this frightening experience without the ability to communicate. Her eventual joy at having red shoes that match and, even better, a brace and ugly brown built-up shoe that allow her to stand on her own two feet, is infectious. Readers of this moving refugee story will celebrate as well. (Nonfiction. 9-12)

Hazel Rochman on Booklist wrote:

In this sequel to Last Airlift (2012), Vietnamese orphan Tuyet, now rooted and happy in her adoptive Toronto family, is terrified of the surgery she has to undergo to straighten her leg and ankle, which were left twisted from the polio she contracted in Saigon. As she lies in the hospital recovering from the operation, her leg in “cement,” she is haunted by nightmares of the past and by her fear of losing her present home. Is there something she has done to upset Mom and Dad? Are they sending her away? Unable to speak English, she cannot ask for help in the hospital, and her confusion about what is happening now forms the story’s drama. Occasional black-and-white photos show Tuyet at home in Toronto with her loving parents and siblings. Along with the true personal story, the facts about polio across the globe, past and present, will grip readers.

Helen Kubiw on Canlit For Little Canadians wrote:

Eight-year-old Son Thi Anh Tuyet’s story begins in Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue From War (Pajama Press, 2011) with her rescue from Saigon when the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong relentlessly bombarded the city at the conclusion of the Vietnam War. Along with numerous babies from the orphanage, Tuyet is given transport to Canada. And, regardless of her polio-stricken left foot and leg which she believes makes her unadoptable, Tuyet is welcomed into the Morris household in Ontario.

So begins One Step at a Time: A Vietnamese Child Finds Her Way, the next chapter of Tuyet’s life, as a new sister to Beth, 4; Lara, 3, adopted from Calcutta; and baby Aaron, also from Vietnam. Though far from the bombings and orphanage life in Vietnam, Tuyet is still troubled. She experiences nightmares and poor sleep, finding reassurance in sleeping on the floor near family so that she might hear them nearby. She cannot understand English very well yet, so communication is difficult, though she recognizes the love and safety she feels in the Morris’ home, now hers. And she continues to suffer with her disabled foot and leg that prevent her from walking properly, running, and even kicking a ball. Overriding everything, though, is her fear that she may have to leave the Morris’ and perhaps return to Vietnam.

Though it has been explained to her that she will be going to McMaster Hospital for an operation for her leg and foot, Tuyet is not prepared emotionally for being separated from her new family and the aftermath of the operation. In the 1970’s, Canada’s multicultural identify had not quite blossomed fully and translation services were essentially non-existent. Awakening to find her leg “in cement” is distraction enough, but being unable to communicate her overwhelming pain leaves Tuyet feeling even more vulnerable. Luckily her simple “I want Mom and Dad” brings Dad to help, as he does throughout the whole process of Tuyet using her crutches, being fitted for braces, and getting regular physiotherapy.

Tuyet’s new life is filled with many “firsts”, which she sometimes sadly connects with her past. Balloons, the hospital, birthday presents and cake with burning candles, leg casts, and even a crop duster plane cause some confusion and even distress but the compassion and support John and Dorothy Morris extend to their new daughter and the unconditional love of her new siblings remedies most of her fears and pains. Ultimately, coupled with a pair of little red shoes, Tuyet’s life is changed forever.

Just as she so eloquently did in Last Airlift, Marsha Skrypuch gently takes the reader by the hand to observe the young girl’s new life from Tuyet’s viewpoint. The thoughts in Tuyet’s young mind are varied, complex and even irrational (from an adult’s point of view, of course) but they are real and overwhelming to an eight-year-old, and even Tuyet astutely recognizes that “not all hurts show on the outside.” (pg. 90) Not the princess dreams and perfect endings of fairy tales, Tuyet’s story is all the more satisfying when her anxieties and confusions are resolved fittingly, just as her shoes are, though not perfectly, and provide the hope necessary to help her take her next steps. A wonderful tale of making things fit, whether they be people or shoes.

Helen Norrie on Winnipeg Free Press wrote:

In Last Airlift, Brantford, Ont., author Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch told the story of how a Vietnamese orphan, Tuyet, was rescued from an orphanage in Saigon and found a new life with a family in Brantford. In One Step at a Time (Pajama Press, 128 pages, $13 paperback), Skrypuch continues Tuyet’s story and tells how Tuyet bravely faced many operations to correct a leg that was crippled by polio in Vietnam.

While the story is told from Tuyet’s viewpoint, it is a non-fiction account, written for an eight-12 age group and illustrated with black-and-white photographs of Tuyet and the Morrises, who became her family.

Skrypuch, who has published a number of both picture books and juvenile novels, many on the theme of Ukrainian immigration, does a good job of portraying Tuyet’s feelings as she faces the uncertainties of a new country, a new home and frightening surgery.

on Ex Libris:

Marsha Skrypuch has written two short books for young readers that tell the story of eight year old Son Thi Anh Tuyet, a Vietnamese orphan who was adopted by a family from Brantford, Ontario. Living in an orphanage in Saigon, in 1975, Tuyet had been crippled by polio when younger and was suffering from psychological trauma as a result of her experiences during the Vietnam War.

With the fall of South Vietnam and its capital city, Saigon, to the North Vietnamese communists, the West began to evacuate children and babies from orphanages all over the city. Tuyet was one of fifty-seven babies and children airlifted out of Saigon and flown to Toronto Canada. This flight, on April 13, 1975, was the last to arrive in Canada. The children on this flight were not yet adopted. Last Airliftgoes on to describe Tuyet’s experience, leaving Vietnam and her new life with John and Dorothy Morris who adopted her into their family. Marsha Skrypuch intended to write Tuyet’s story as a novel. Tuyet initially couldn’t remember much of her early childhood, but as her memories resurfaced, Ms. Skrypuch decided to tell Tuyet’s story instead.

The second book, One Step At A Time, tells about Tuyet’s struggle to have her leg, damaged and weakened by polio mended so that she would be able to walk again. Tuyet’s surgery took place at the newly opened McMaster University Hospital in Hamilton, ON in 1975. At this time, parents could not stay with their children, and there were no translation services available to a newcomer to Canada, like Tuyet. Skrypuch effectively captures Tuyet’s confusion and fear at being left alone in a hospital for a procedure she didn’t understand.
Eventually Tuyet begins to adapt to her new home and family, largely due to having regained the ability to be mobile and also due to the loving care of the Morris family.

Tuyet’s early attachment to John Morris is truly endearing. One family picture with Tuyet’s arm draped over her father’s knee suggests that Tuyet immediately formed a close bond with the man who was the first father she had ever known. Tuyet was very blessed to have been adopted into such a loving family. Her two younger sisters treated her with kindness and repeatedly reassure her. They introduced her to the strange, new customs of her adopted country, Canada.

These two books will serve as a gentle introduction for younger children to an event known as the Fall of Saigon and also the Vietnam War. Skrypuch’s books can also be used as the jumping point for children learning about the Vietnamese refugees who came to Canada in the mid-1970’s.

Leslie Vermeer on Resource Links wrote:

One Step at a Time is an easy-to-read book about Tuyet, a Vietnamese girl adopted by a Canadian family. It is the sequel to Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War and picks up where that book leaves off. Tuyet suffers great pain from having a weak ankle. Just weeks after her adoption, her new family decides Tuyet should have surgery to correct the problem. Tuyet goes through the surgery, learns to use crutches, and takes physiotherapy in the hope of one day being able to walk confidently on her own two feet.

At the same time, Tuyet, who speaks little English, is learning about her new family, new home, and new culture and is healing from terrifying experiences in Vietnam. Events that seem ordinary to many Canadian children are extraordinary for Tuyet, and we share her confusion and delight as situations—such as a flaming cake and a pile of pretty boxes, or the passing of a crop-dusting airplane—begin to resolve into meaning.

This is a gentle non-fiction telling of a particular period in Canadian history and of the experience of being a new immigrant with health concerns. Notes in the end matter provide some useful context for readers who may not understand the significance of polio or the conventions of narrative non-fiction. Black-and-white photos, including pictures of Tuyet and her family, add to the reading experience. Although Tuyet’s experiences are unusual and sometimes frightening, the narrative is full of love, kindness, and comfort.

One Step at a Time is a good choice for sensitive young readers interested in non-fiction about other children, other cultures, and recent history; it may be eye-opening for many readers. Although aspects of Canadian culture have changed, the disorientation that new Canadians experience may be similar to Tuyet’s. The book is likely to encourage many questions and wide-ranging discussion in a reading group, and the story is highly likeable. Readers do not need to know the author’s earlier book about Tuyet to understand this one, but many will want to read more about this brave and spirited girl.

on Publishers’ Weekly:

In this true-life historical tale of overcoming adversity, Skrypuch continues the story of Tuyet, an eight-year-old Vietnam­ese refugee and polio survivor with a damaged leg, whose rescue she narrated in Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War. Adopted by an unconditionally loving and supportive Canadian family, unable to understand or express much in English, Tuyet begins a difficult journey through surgeries and arduous physical therapy to repair her leg. Because her harrowing experiences in Vietnam are referenced only in her nightmares or fearful reactions to ordinary events, readers unfamiliar with the first book may need additional explanation to understand the history of the Vietnamese airlift and how Tuyet came to Canada (the lack of a preface or synopsis of Tuyet’s earlier experiences is problematic). Back matter includes information about polio and Canadian hospital procedures in the 1970s, as well as a resource list. While Tuyet’s quiet perseverance is inspiring, the book’s simple language and design, which includes b&w historical photos presented in unadorned fashion with the briefest of captions, give it a dated quality that may lessen its appeal for today’s readers. Ages 8–12. (Feb.)

Jennifer on Flying Off My BookShelf wrote:

This is a simple little biography/history. It’s the story of a Vietnamese girl, one of the last to be rescued as the North Vietnamese army marched into Saigon. It’s easy enough for a younger reader to understand and while it doesn’t soften the harsh realities, there’s nothing too graphic. It focuses mostly on Tuyet’s emotions and adjustment to living in Canada with a family.
It’s just a little over 100 pages, which makes it perfect for our biography needs. I would have liked to see more acknowledgement that it was Tuyet’s story, and maybe some mentions of the controversies surrounding international adoptions, but overall it was a good story and something kids will enjoy reading when they’re assigned a biography.
Borrowed from another library in the consortium; Added to the library’s wishlist. Jennifer.

Karen Hildebrand on wrote:

One Step at a TimeThis companion book to Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War (2012) provides the chapters that follow in the life of young Tuyet, a Vietnamese orphan stricken with polio and raised in a Vietnamese orphanage until her adoption by a Canadian family. As Tuyet becomes part of her new family, she also faces the surgeries that are required to repair her inward-turning foot. Unable to speak much English, the young girl is frightened by the hospital and surgical lights, the doctors, the consultations and examinations since she is still dealing with the nightmares of war-torn Vietnam and near-death experiences with guns and helicopters. As the surgeries conclude and the painful physical therapy begins, her new life starts to take shape. The cover of the book and the red shoes pictured take on a very special meaning by the end of this heart-warming book that will leave readers in tears. Teachers can read an interview with the author on the back matter for her book.

Etta Kaner on Good News Toronto wrote:

This is the sequel to The Last Airlift, which told the story of Tuyet, an orphan rescued from Vietnam. In the second part of her story, Tuyet is settling in to life with her Canadian family, but her polio-damaged leg doesn’t allow her to walk properly and gives her constant pain. She needs an operation to correct her damaged leg and it can’t wait.

Skrypuch’s simple language captures the fear and bewilderment of a girl who’s barely had time to deal with the trauma of her escape from Vietnam and new life in a strange country when she’s confronted with yet another frightening experience. Tuyet still doesn’t speak English and although she knows they’re trying to fix her leg, she doesn’t understand why they’re doing it the way they are. However, with the help of friends she makes it through the operation. Then the real work begins as she struggles with physical therapy and recovery. However, Tuyet has boundless determination and insists on standing on her own two feet, both emotionally and physically, and finally triumphs. Along the way there are incidents and growing experiences that give the reader a good look not only at Tuyet’s childhood but also at the time period.

An historical note explains polio, a disease most western children are, thankfully, unfamiliar with. Further resources offer more stories of children who suffered from polio and where you can get involved to help children in countries that still struggle with this disease. There are also a series of brief author notes explaining some of the things in the book – Tuyet’s birthday, why her parents didn’t stay with her in the hospital, etc.

Verdict: This is a strong sequel to The Last Airlift. It’s just long enough for kids needing a 100-pg biography for school, but also makes an inspiring read for kids who like history and reading about real people. It’s nice to see a biography that isn’t either a picture book or a massive tome and this offers an interesting look at a unique person and time period. Recommended.

One Step at a Time: A Vietnamese Child Finds Her Way by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch (published by Pajama Press) is the true story of Tuyet, an orphaned refugee from wartorn Vietnam who is adopted by a Canadian family. Life in a strange country with a new language presents many challenges, including the first of six operations to repair her left leg, which was deformed by polio. Through incredible determination and strength of character, along with the support of her family, Tuyet learns to walk without the aid of crutches. Readers 8 to 11 years old will marvel at Tuyet’s perseverance and laugh at moments when she reveals her unfamiliarity with Canadian customs, such as when Tuyet doesn’t understand why her first-ever birthday cake is “on fire.” Etta Kaner, Good News Toronto.

From the International Examiner:

In this sequel to Last Airlift: a Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War, Canadian author Marsha Skrypuch continues the inspiring real-life saga of Tuyet who, as a young refugee, is adjusting to her new life in the peaceful suburbs of a Canadian town.

While still haunted by nightmares and painful memories of the Vietnam War, One Step at a Time sees Tuyet facing a different kind of threat—polio. Encouraged by her adoptive siblings and supported by her new parents, it’s up to her to find the courage to undergo the procedures and treatments that could alter her life forever. For even though she has long been self-conscious of her affected leg, Tuyet fears, as many of us do, the sometimes unpredictable effects of medical intervention. Of course, the process is even more difficult for the young heroine because the language barrier prevents her from fully grasping what the doctors and social workers are trying to do.

Although aimed at a beginning reading level, One Step at a Time deals with some tough issues from a dark period of history that young readers are probably unfamiliar with. But as a poignant story of compassion, perseverance and recovery, Skrypuch’s writing provides a platform for opening a dialogue on the repercussions of war and violence, as well as global health in regard to polio. As such, the story is perfect for bringing together multiple generations of readers.

Author: Marsha

I write historical fiction, mostly from the perspective of young people who are thrust in the midst of war.