'Escape' author takes page from her own life for book

Writing "Escape from Saigon" was almost like a coming home for Kansas writer Andrea Warren.

The award-winning author of five children's books, Warren spent 25 years putting together "Escape from Saigon," inspired by her own adoption of a Vietnamese baby girl and her visits to that country.

During the course of her research, which was originally done for her master's thesis at Kansas University, Warren found herself led not only to the story of "Escape from Saigon" subject Matt Steiner, but also to other situations similar to the scenario of "Miss Saigon," which will play April 5-6 at the Lied Center. The musical tells the story of a child born to a Vietnamese mother and a missing American father.

"Escape from Saigon: How a Vietnam War Orphan Became an American Boy" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $17) focuses on the life of Steiner. He, like Warren's daughter Alison, was born in Vietnam, orphaned and evacuated from Saigon after being cared for by an international relief agency.

Born in 1966, Steiner was then given the simple name "Long" by his mother. The father abandoned Long and his mother early in Long's life; his mother committed suicide a few years later. In 1975, his life changed drastically when he was adopted by Jim and Mary Steiner of West Liberty, Ohio.

Warren, based in a Kansas City, Kan., suburb, was compelled by his story, which she first encountered through an article in Reader's Digest. Her own experiences while seeking to adopt Alison had fueled her desire to chronicle the lives of children who had escaped the war-ravaged country.

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From left, Ashley Chan (Tam), Jennifer Hubilla (Kim) and Bryan Geli (Thuy) are pictured during a performance of "You Will Not Touch Him" from a production of "Miss Saigon." The musical, scheduled to play April 5-6 at the Lied Center, tells the story of a child born to a Vietnamese mother and a missing American father - a tale similar to the real-life story told by Kansas City, Kan., author Andrea Warren in her book, "Escape from Saigon."

Steiner, Warren discovered by contacting the Reader's Digest writer, had been cared for in Vietnam by Holt International Services.

"The article was written by an American flight attendant who was on the plane that brought Matt out of Vietnam," Warren says. "She helped care for Matt on the flight and mentioned his name and the Holt connection. I contacted Holt, and they forwarded my message to Matt, who then called me. That's how it began."

Survival lessons

In fact, Warren had first planned to make Alison the focus of her book, only to realize she needed a child with clear memories of Vietnam.

"My vision was to tell the story ... from the perspective of a child whose life has changed," she says. "Once I found Matt, I knew I wanted to tell the story through his eyes."

She found that his recollections and his personality perfectly suited her.

"I'm very particular about who I write about because I look for people with positive attitudes. When kids read my books, they learn that life's tough, and your attitude's critical when you have to come through that," Warren says.

Matt's life had crucial elements Warren has always dealt with in her books. She seeks to convey specific information to her readers.

"While my books are read in other countries, I always envision American children as my audience," she says. "Unless they come from immigrant families, they simply do not understand the hardships that bring many people to our shores.

"Also, if you look for a theme in the five nonfiction books I've written for young audiences, you'll note that they all center on children who are displaced for one reason or another, and that getting enough food to eat is an issue for all of them. Even American children who seemingly live sheltered lives may someday find themselves hungry, displaced or orphaned. The children who populate my books can teach them many lessons about surviving hardship and going on to living worthwhile lives."

Vivid recollections

Steiner's life after his mother's death was spent sharing meager meals with his grandmother, who eventually found she couldn't afford to feed him and gave custody of him to Holt. That fact resonated with Warren, who has intimate knowledge of malnourished children.

"I have an adopted daughter who, at 6 months, weighed 11 pounds," she recalls. "She had really been through it. There was a strong interest (for me and my husband Jay) in helping children in need."

Even now she stays in touch with Steiner, a successful physician in Indiana. "I'm really drawn to these spunky kids. I love these people," she says as she talks about the children in her books.

Probing the minds of young subjects can be difficult, she acknowledges. "Matt was so young, he doesn't remember his mother's name."

Still, his recollections were invaluable to her. In the book she conjures up his memories of visits to street vendors and finds that he distinctly remembers a large open-air market where he watched caged pigs, and examined ducks, geese and chickens tied together in bundles.

Equally intriguing are his recollections of Tet, the New Year's celebration that falls in late January or early February. He still can remember the traditional silk outfit his grandmother wore during the festivities.

Warren's quotes from Steiner reveal that some of his experiences are still clear in his mind. "Tet was like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Fourth of July, all rolled into one," he told Warren. "We had celebrations and parades, sparklers, fireworks to ward off evil spirits, ringing bells and special foods."

Staying connected

Interspersed with his story is the broader story of South Vietnam's fall to the Communists. Obviously sympathetic to the people of the country, Warren comments that, "What happened in Vietnam is still a source of great sorrow and stress for many people."

Although she hasn't actively followed multiple Vietnamese adoptions, Warren does say, "Our family has gone to several 'reunions' for families with adopted Vietnamese children, and when we took (a) trip to Vietnam, we had 14 adoptees with us, so obviously I do know some. The ones I have met have grown up in loving families. I have heard a few stories that would indicate that this wasn't the case for every adopted child."

"Escape from Saigon" was published in 2004, but Warren's contact with children was extensive long before that. "I get lots of e-mails from kids," she says. "Sometimes they are working on a report and have a question, sometimes they are working on a class project. I always respond -- I know what it would have meant to me."

Warren's thesis is available at KU's Watson Library. She is working on a book about the Siege of Vicksburg, focusing on "children who were in town during that long and brutal siege."

Her previous titles include "Orphan Train Rider: One Boy's True Story" (1996), which won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for nonfiction; "Pioneer Girl: Growing Up On the Prairie" (1998); "We Rode the Orphan Trains" (2001); and "Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps" (2001), which was named a Robert F. Sibert Honor Book.

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