The Boat by Nam Le is a collection of seven non-sequential short stories set in different times and places across the globe. Each chapter portrays the main character facing a central crisis in their life. Although the chapters may seem unrelated, they each have parallels and exhibit the similar themes of family relationships, sacrifice, loss, and trauma.
Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice
The opening chapter "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice" tells the story of a man named Nam who has moved from Australia to Iowa to pursue a writing career. This chapter portrays many parallels between the author and the main character in this story; however, the author never explicitly says that this chapter is an exact representation of his past.
As the chapter opens, Nam’s father, known as Ba, has just arrived to visit Nam in Iowa. Nam hasn’t seen his father in three years and remains on shaky terms with him; Nam lacks trust in his father and sees him as someone who is trying to control him. Nam also feels far removed from his father and his old life; Nam has a girlfriend where he lives now and has been trying to put down roots and be independent.
Nam’s father arrives at a time when Nam is trying to make a writing deadline; he has to write his final thesis and is struggling to come up with a topic. Nam finds himself drawn to writing about his past, but he also struggles to find the ability to accurately word everything. Now that Nam’s dad is in his presence, Nam finds himself digging up the old feelings that he remembers from his childhood, feelings that he tried to escape by moving. Nam doesn’t quite know how to act around his father. On one hand, Nam resents him because remembers the verbal and physical abuse that he experienced from his father during his childhood; however, Nam also feels pity for his dad because he remembers hearing about his father’s traumatic experience of being part of a massacre during the Vietnam war.
As Nam and his father begin to build a bit of trust between each other, Nam decides that he wants to write his writing thesis about his father’s traumatic past. Nam interviews his dad and then stays up all night typing it on his typewriter, leaving the copy on his desk in the morning. When Nam wakes up, his father and the writing copy are gone. Nam goes to look for his father and sees him by the river, empty handed. The story closes as Nam realizes that his father has thrown his work in the river and Nam realizes he can’t trust his dad.
The chapter of “Cartagena” follows a young boy Juan Pablo Menendez living in the slums of Columbia. The story opens with him and his friends Luis, Claudia, Eduardo, and Pedro walking to threaten and beat up an old man for no apparent reason. While walking, the kids talk about going to Cartagena, a place in Colombia where things are said to be better. After this, Juan goes back to his home where he lives with his mother and readers start to learn more about his past.
Juan started his life on the street after becoming part of the gallada, which was a group of poor kids led by an older boy named Hernando that stole things to support themselves. Hernando and Juan became friends after a police officer and a businessman tried to kidnap them and they escaped. After this incident, both of their reputations on the street increased, causing a rich and powerful agent named El Padre to recruit Juan to become a hitman.
For the past four months, Juan has been working as a hit man under El Padre. Juan was initially alright with the arrangement because it meant financial security for him and his mom as well as protection from gang violence. However, Juan realizes the implications of being a hit man when El Padre asks Juan to kill his friend Hernando. Juan pretends like he can’t find Hernando, so El Padre gets another man named Zeno to kill Hernando. Readers then learn that Zeno is the man that Juan and his friends beat up in the beginning of the story.
After hearing that Juan didn’t go through with killing Hernando and beat up the man that did, El Padre calls Juan and asks him to meet him to speak. Juan is afraid because he knows that meeting El Padre means certain death for him, but he knows that El Padre will target and kill his mom if he refuses to meet. Juan and his friend Claudia go together to the house that El Padre asked him to meet at and Juan goes inside to talk. El Padre talks to him and then lets him go outside to talk to Claudia. When Juan goes outside, Claudia hands him a hand grenade. The story ends with Juan going back inside and pulling the pin out of the grenade.
The chapter “Meeting Elise” centers around a middle-aged alcoholic named Henry Luff who lives in New York City. The story opens with Henry going to the doctor because of complaints of abdominal issues. After subsequent testing, Henry is diagnosed with potential colon cancer from his doctor.
Readers then begin to learn of Henry’s other problems. Henry speaks of a time when he had a wife and a baby girl named Elise. Henry made his living as a successful painter, painting pictures of nude models. However, Henry’s life collapses when he falls in love with one of his nude models, a young girl named Olivia. When his wife hears of the affair, she flees to Russia and brings their child with her, refusing to allow Henry to see Elise as she’s growing up. Henry stays with Olivia until she becomes ill and passes away; Henry is still traumatized from it and experiences vivid flashbacks of Olivia.
At the present time of the story, Elise is eighteen years old and is a talented cello player who has played in Carnegie Hall. Elise is engaged to her recording manager, something that Henry is angry about. Henry still financially supports Elise even though he hasn’t seen her since she was a baby.
Now that Elise has turned eighteen, she’s legally allowed to meet Henry, but she’s hesitant to do so. Henry talks to his longtime painting agent Jacob Apelman about his fears about meeting his daughter. Elise agrees to meet Henry for dinner, but then cancels on him after he’s waited for her for an hour. Henry then goes to the hall that Elise is performing at that night, and the chapter ends with Henry experiencing a flashback of Olivia when he sees Elise walk on stage.
The chapter “Halflead Bay” is a coming-of-age story centering around a high school student named Jamie who tries to balance sports and his social life while struggling with family problems. Jamie is renowned by his principal at a school assembly for scoring the winning goal at Halflead High’s latest football match. Although everyone at the school seems to be impressed, Jamie notes that his father is not. Shortly after the assembly, a girl named Alison Fischer approaches him and flirts with him. Although Jamie has had a crush on her for ages, he is wary of talking to her because she had dated a guy named Dory who Jamie is afraid of. Dory and his sidekick Lester were rumored to have beaten up Wilhelm, a kid who tried to get with Alison earlier that year. Jamie is afraid to keep talking to Alison, but he tells her to come visit him at the jetty if she really wants to see him.
After talking to Alison, Jamie goes home to his house which overlooks the bay, where he lives with his mother, father, and ten-year-old brother Michael. Halflead Bay is a town that was dominated by the fishing industry until the bay was overfished. Now, the town’s biggest industry is dying and people in the town complain that it constantly smells like fish. Although Jamie’s dad had continued to make his living fishing in the bay, he stopped once Jamie’s mother was diagnosed with MS five years ago. After the diagnosis, Jamie’s mom slowly stopped engaging her usual hobbies of painting landscape scenes of the bay. Now, their family life centers around taking care of Jamie’s mom. Their family also experiences conflict because Jamie’s dad is set on moving to the inland city of Maroomba, where Jamie’s dad thinks that Jamie’s mom can get better treatment. Jamie’s dad encourages Jamie and Michael to tell their mom that they want to move, because Jamie’s mom is set against the idea.
Shortly after going home from school, Jamie and Michael go down and fish at the jetty with Jamie’s friend Cale. Cale is a twenty-year-old shaggy surfer who smokes pot and moved to the area after high school. While fishing, Alison shows up at the jetty. Jamie is surprised but follows her away from the jetty up the bluff to the old courthouse. There, Jamie and Alison kiss and she invites him to a party on Thursday night. Jamie wants to go farther but Alison complains that he smells like fish.
Jamie goes to the party on Thursday night that Alison invited him to. Alison comes to the party late once Jamie is already drunk and they walk down to the sea. Jamie asks Alison about Dory and tells her that he thinks she could do better than Dory. Alison seems sad by this and says that she feels like things are different with Jamie. Jamie convinces Alison to stay. Then, there’s a flashback of the last time when Jamie went fishing with his family. He reels in a large fish and in the process catches the hook on a seagull. The seagull is suffering and bloody and Jamie’s dad tells him to put it out of its misery. Jamie can’t bring himself to do it and so his mom does. After the flashback, Jamie wakes up by the sea feeling as if the night was a dream. He’s also scared by what Dory might do to him.
Jamie runs into Cale, who says that Lester told him to tell Jamie that Dory will fight Jamie on Monday. There’s a thunderstorm the night before the fight; during the thunderstorm, Michael tells Jamie that he knows about the fight. Jamie is terrified by the fight and warns him mom about what’s going to happen. Jamie goes through school on Monday dreading the fight; however, he’s saved by his principal, who asks him to come into his office at the end of the day. There, Jamie’s coach and parents sit; his coach tells him that he doesn’t have to worry about Dory anymore. However, Jamie’s mom tells Jamie that he wants the boys to settle it on their own.
Once Jamie gets home, he’s conflicted by what he should do and ends up walking down to Dory’s house. There, Jamie sees Dory, Dory’s uncle, Lester, and Alison. Jamie tries to fight Dory and is beaten up; Alison laughs at first. Jamie’s dad and brother appear halfway through the fight and Jamie realizes that Michael must have followed him. Jamie’s dad tries to break up the fist fight and ends up getting punched. Dory realizes that he has crossed a line and stops fighting. The story concludes with Jamie and his father and brother walking back.
The chapter "Hiroshima" centers around a young Japanese girl named Mayako who has been taken away from the center of the city during WWII. Mayako’s life has been dictated by war and she feels afraid for her future. Written in first person, this story utilizes simple and abstract language, showing how Mayako doesn’t fully understand her circumstances.
The story opens with Mayako talking about how she now lives outside of Hiroshima in a refuge with other children. Mayako’s parents sent her away from the city because of threats from the Allied forces that they would bomb Japan. Mayako talks about the daily life at the refuge, such as learning lessons from her teachers and playing games with the other kids.
Mayako feels a strong sense of connection to her nation and has been taught to be brave. Although she misses her parents and speaks frequently of seeing her family at the Next Visiting Day, she distracts herself by playing role-playing war games with her friends. She's friends with two other girls her age named Tomiko and Yukiyo. Mayako is also influenced by her teacher Mrs. Sasiko, who teaches her to be brave and not give in to the enemy.
Mayako feels very homesick for most of the story and doesn't understand why her parents and Big Sister couldn't join her at the refuge. She finds solace in listening to war updates on the radio, which becomes increasingly staticy as the days go on.
Mayako doesn't know when she will be able to leave and becomes more worrisome as time passes. As the days pass, her sense of fear and confusion increases as she notices the teachers at the refuge become more tense. The story ends with Mayako having a vision of seeing her parents again as the atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima.
The chapter “Tehran Calling” focuses on a thirty-five year old American woman named Sarah Middleton who travels to Iran to meet her friend Parvin, who she had met in college. Written in third person, Sarah hasn’t seen her friend in a long time and doesn’t know what to expect.
Sarah and Parvin share a long history as friends. In college, Parvin had started a weekly call-in radio program for women’s rights reform in Iran called Tehran Calling. Although Parvin was born in Iran, she had moved to Europe as a teen and then moved to America for college. Because of this, Sarah had struggled to see why Parvin was so passionate about Iran when she didn’t live there, causing the friends to drift apart.
Parvin had eventually quit her job to dedicate herself to the show, and eventually emigrates back to Iran. At the same time, Sarah had begun seriously dating a man named Paul who worked in her company. Sarah had worked at a successful law firm in Portland and enjoyed her life with Paul. However, their breakup destroyed her and caused her to seek solace in Parvin, who eventually invites Sarah to come visit her in Iran.
The story opens when Sarah arrives at the airport in Iran and meets Parvin’s friend Mahmoud there; she’s a little suspicious because Parvin was supposed to pick her up. Mahmoud takes Sarah to a hotel where she rests and then Parvin meets her there later. Mahmoud, Parvin and Sarah go together to a city square to enjoy the festivities from the religious holiday Ashura. Then, the three go to Parvin’s family’s house for dinner and a meeting. At the meeting, Parvin discusses her desire to stage a re-enactment of a young girl’s torture and execution in the square where the religious rally will be held. Parvin hopes that this will help to bring awareness to violence in Iran, but others at the meeting think the plan is too dangerous.
At the dinner, Sarah discovers that Parvin has a sister and had two older brothers who had died fighting wars in Iran. Sarah feels slightly betrayed for not knowing these things about her friend, and Parvin and Sarah get into a fight about it but make up the next morning.
Parvin speaks of rumors of people being kidnapped and goes to the square to make sure everyone is okay. Mahmoud and Sarah go l ater to the square to watch the religious rally and witness an attack where a group of men with weapons come and beat young girls. They threaten Mahmoud and Sarah, but let Sarah go because she’s an American citizen. After that, Sarah learns that Parvin has gone missing.
Shocked, Sarah and Mahmoud seek shelter at a nearby hotel. Mahmoud comforts her and gives her a pipe to smoke. The story ends with Mahmoud and Sarah smoking and still being unsure as to if Parvin is okay.
The chapter “The Boat” features a sixteen-year old girl named Mai who escapes from Vietnam on a boat packed with other refugees. Mai’s mother gives Mai money and tells her to go on a bus where she will meet someone who her mom says is her “uncle”. Mai doesn’t realize where she is going and feels confused and unsure about the situation. When Mai arrives on the bus, her “uncle” hides her for several days until she is transferred to the boat, where she befriends a young mother named Quyen and her six year son Truong. The boat is uncomfortable, overcrowded with people and reeking of human excrement. Mai feels scared about being in an unfamiliar place without her family and struggles to comprehend the finality of probably not being able to see her family again. However, Mai’s situation worsens when a storm causes the boat’s engines to break and their food and water supply to spoil. Now, the boat is no longer just uncomfortable, it’s potentially deadly.
For the rest of Mai’s journey on the boat, she struggles to cope with losing her parents and her old life, but is distracted by the harsh reality of her own potential demise. For the rest of their journey on the boat, Mai witnesses people die of dehydration and sickness, while she suffers from the effects herself. She gets a fever and suffers from delusions for a couple of days. Once she recovers, she tries to spend her time around Quyen and Troung, who bring her a sense of comfort and familiarity. Especially drawn to Troung, Mai initially thinks this is because he reminds her of her little brother, but then realizes that Truong’s stoic expression reminds her of her own father. Mai’s father remains a central point of Mai’s thoughts; she finds herself being able to relate more to the struggles that her father had faced in war while she suffers on the boat.
As the journey progresses, Truong in particular weakens, becoming feverish and still. Mai tries to help him by keeping him above deck, where there is more air and open space. Quyen suffers from delusions and is briefly angered at Mai because she doesn’t want her to take Truong from her, but Quyen then realizes that Mai is just trying to help. The two women are able to get another ration of water for Truong, but are fearful that the remaining water is almost gone. As the people on the boat become more weak and begin to feel hopeless, they eventually spot land. Mai goes to wake Truong to tell him the good news, but realizes he has passed away. The chapter ends with Truong’s body being thrown overboard just as the boat sails towards land.