AMONG the world's 19 million refugees there are bound to be some who will write. The literature of displaced people, which enjoyed a revival after World War II, ought to have another soon as the century ends in an explosion of wars and catastrophes from East Africa and Central Asia to the heart of Europe. This genre that the 20th century has generously nourished recalls nothing so much as the 18th-century picaresques, like "Candide," in which a naive hero is uprooted from a peaceful home, finds himself in the chaotic thick of history he can barely comprehend and undergoes a sequence of unimaginable disasters, enduring terrible cruelty only to be rescued by rare kindness, surviving on wit, crumbs and luck to tell the tale.
And yet the tale is almost never told, or at least we hardly ever hear it. Of the millions of surviving victims of the Vietnam War, most Americans know the names of only two or three. Those who never got out, or weren't able to write in English, or didn't want to return mentally to the scenes of horror, will go down in silence. Jade Ngoc Quang Huynh somehow defied these odds, including almost certain death, to reach us in his memoir, "South Wind Changing."
Mr. Huynh grew up in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam, one of 17 children of a prosperous farmer intermittently touched by the war. He was attending Saigon University when the North Vietnamese tanks rolled through in 1975. The French and American embassies had shut their gates; Mr. Huynh's ordeal was about to begin.
For the crime of being a student he was thrown into a labor camp in the jungles near the Cambodian border. The book's strongest pages describe in terms both horrifying and tender his months of "re-study": the beatings, the brutal field work, the efforts to avoid starvation by catching snakes and rats or stealing bits of rice, the endless grave digging, the whispered friendships. Forced labor puts him in intimate contact with the natural world, which is both a humid oppressor...