Review: Escape from Communist Heaven

Escape from Communist Heaven by Dennis W. Dunivan


There are a lot of good reasons for fictionalizing a true story. Historical fiction as a genre, when it concerns people who actually lived, derives from the fact that we simply don’t have access to the bulk of human history the way we do have access to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. When there’s plenty of empty space on the map, the adaptive writer runs riot. (Aja Romano counts historical fiction as fanfiction. I’m inclined to agree.) Jeanette Walls’ Half Broke Horses, which is sub-titled “A True Life Novel,” immediately leaps to mind. It’s the story of Walls’ grandmother, written from her grandmother’s perspective.

But the rising visibility and popularity of narrative nonfiction and memoir (if it happened to the author) in recent years has shown us that there’s more than one way to tackle telling a brilliant and true story. To counter Half Broke Horses, there’s Priscilla, an upcoming piece of narrative nonfiction about the World War II life of the author’s glamorous aunt. (Less upcoming for the Brits than the Yanks.) Ultimately, it’s left up to the author’s discretion, tastes, and strengths whether to fictionalize or not.

Escape from Communist Heaven is subtitled “based on a true story.” This, to me, means that a story is kind of, sort of the truth, with an emphasis on turning the facts into novelistic entertainment. The Kennedys was also based on a true story, and that production team clearly felt more of an obligation to entertaining storytelling (with varying interpretations of what “entertaining” is) than to the historical record. In fact, Dennis W. Dunivan specifically states that someone should read Escape from Communist Heaven “because it’s entertaining. The book’s number one goal is to entertain” in an interview collected in the first edition (365).

In that interview, it also becomes clear that Escape from Communist Heaven is a labor of love, twenty-one years in the making, starting with Dunivan meeting Viet Nyugen and hearing his story of escaping from a Vietnamese communist prison camp at the age of fourteen. Given the subject matter, it’s no wonder Dunivan decided to fictionalize a prison escape, giving readers both a satisfying escape story and a window onto the birth of communism in Vietnam. It’s education and entertainment, an impression furthered by the book’s designation as young adult fiction and the inclusion of discussion questions, a glossary, and a list of books for those interested in reading further.

The only problem is that Escape from Communist Heaven is structured like a memoir, not a novel. I realize that the lines between novel, narrative nonfiction, and memoir are getting blurrier with every James Frey who comes along, but, broadly speaking, I expect a novel to have a firm and progressing narrative arc. (There’s other things I expect novels to have, but none of them relate to structure.) Dunivan follows the fictionalized Viet from the moment the communists take over to the moment he sights a British ship to rescue him. (Frustratingly, we don’t see him board.) But while it’s of historic value to see Viet living under communism, it’s just not engaging to watch him go through the reality of every day life. There are certain trivialities that novels often ignore for a reason; memoirs thrive on the same trivialities. The story only picks up and begins to focus when Viet is arrested and sent to the prison camp, which, I imagine, will be the main focus of any lesson plan that utilizes the novel. But the novel itself seems unsure about that.

I think this stems from the fact that this is the story of Dunivan’s best friend. It’s hard enough to murder your darlings when you’re writing original fiction, but when it’s your friend’s life and the other horrors of living under an oppressive regime, it must seem impossible. But that’s why some true stories have to be fictionalized if they’re going to be entertainment. The realm of factual litany is the realm of nonfiction.

Lastly, I’m a bit confused by Escape from Communist Heaven’s designation as a young adult title. For the bulk of the novel, Viet is fourteen. Kids traditionally read about teenage characters older than they are, so that places the audience firmly in the middle-grade set. The writing is very clearly on that level, and the amount of educational material in the back of the book speaks to that as well.

Bottom line: Escape from Communist Heaven is clearly a labor of love, but I wonder how it would have fared had it been nonfiction instead of fiction.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review.

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