88 pages 2 hours read

Ann E. Burg

All the Broken Pieces

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2009

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Summary and Study Guide


All the Broken Pieces is a novel in verse by Ann E. Burg, first published in 2009 and geared toward middle grade readers. The novel won the Jefferson Cup Award for children’s historical fiction and was named an IRA Notable Book for a Global Society, as well as a Booklist Editors’ Choice and YALSA Best Book for Young Adults. Burg was also nominated for a NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work. With a sparse free verse style and an emphasis on emotion and imagery, All the Broken Pieces tells the story of a Vietnamese American boy trying to adjust to life with his adoptive American family, after spending the first nine years of his life in war-torn Vietnam.

Content Warning: The source material features violence, war, and ableist perspectives.

All the Broken Pieces begins with seventh-grader Matt Pin’s fragmented memories of a Vietnam filled with “fear and fog […] smoke and death” (3). Matt mentions his birth mother Phang My; an American father who left Phang My and her children, promising to return but never doing so; and Matt’s younger brother, who has “stumps instead of legs” (9). Matt recalls his mother pushing him onto a helicopter along with other crying children, telling him to “Survive” (4). Matt begged Phang My to let Matt’s younger brother go with him, but she wouldn’t, as she worried no American family would want a child with a disability.

Now, two years after Matt was airlifted out of Vietnam, he lives with an American family and their own young son, Tommy. Matt, with his dark hair and eyes, feels noticeably different from his adoptive mother and brother, who have blonde hair, but with the American features he inherited from his father, he also feels separate from the Vietnamese children he meets at the adoption agency. Matt has nightmares of the trauma he’s experienced. His adoptive mother, Elizabeth, sings him lullabies, but Matt still doesn’t feel completely safe and at home in his new life.

Matt begins taking piano lessons from Jeff Harding, a Vietnam vet who works at the same hospital as Matt’s father. Matt’s adoptive mother, whom he refers to as “mom,” hopes music will “soothe [Matt’s] monsters” (28), and Matt takes to the piano right away, liking the certainty it provides as the “notes always stay / the same” (33). He wishes he could be like Jeff, who has a “calm quiet” (42) to him that contrasts with Matt’s sense of insecurity. At the same time, Matt’s adoptive father, Michael, has been practicing baseball with him and encouraging him to try out for the school team for the past two years, and this year Matt finally signs up for tryouts.

During tryouts, some of the boys call Matt “Frog-face” (47) and “Matt-the-rat” (48), and worst of all are the words of another seventh grader, Rob Brennan: “My brother died / because of you” (48). Matt is afraid to tell anyone about the taunts, and when Matt is one of only four seventh graders to make the team, the bullying only gets worse—especially because Rob is also on the team. Coach Robeson warns the team he won’t tolerate prejudice, but the other boys just become sneakier about it.

Matt hears his adoptive parents whispering, worrying they “can’t provide / what he needs” (63), and he assumes they’re planning to give him away. He tries to do everything perfectly so his parents will keep him but is still wracked with anxiety. Matt hits a high point when he pitches a perfect game and leaves his father “glowing” (78) with pride, but at the next game, Matt doesn’t pitch quite as well. After the game, Jeff Harding tries to ask Matt about Vietnam, and Matt has a disturbing flashback of trying to carry his injured brother. When Matt returns home, his parents say they need to talk to him, and he assumes they’re about to give him away. Instead, Matt’s parents want him to attend veterans’ meetings with Jeff—his mother hopes connecting with others who experienced the violence of the war will help Matt “to stop running” (96).

Michael takes Matt to the veterans’ meeting, where he’s surprised to find the former soldiers look like “beat-up men” (101). Matt’s dad introduces him to his high-school friend Chris “Whirlin’ Will” Williams, who was a star baseball pitcher before he went to Vietnam; now, he uses a wheelchair and has a heavily scarred face. Matt’s father reveals that Chris’s wife left him after Vietnam, and that the war “changed” him—like it “changed / all of us” (109). At the next meeting, Matt listens to the vets sharing traumatic stories and wondering how they can “turn [the memories] off” (127), and he questions how people would react if he shared the story of his brother’s tragedy.

Coach Robeson misses a few days of practice, and returns to announce that he has cancer and will have to stop coaching to undergo treatment. Matt suggests they hold a dinner for the coach at the community center, and Coach makes a speech about the “real role models” (144)—the young men who sacrificed their futures to fight in Vietnam. Matt wants to stand up and support his coach, but he feels glued to his seat, wondering: “Why can’t I ever say the things / I want to say?” (145).

The bullying Matt experiences during baseball practice increases, but he devotes more energy to practicing piano and improves. At the next veterans’ meeting, Jeff tells the others a bit about Matt, including the fact that Matt’s mother had the “faith” and “love” (156) to “entrust” (155) her son to American soldiers so that he could have a better life. For the first time, Matt truly believes that his mother loved him despite the fact that she sent him away. Jeff asks if Matt would like to say anything to the group, but Matt chooses to stay quiet.

Coach Robeson chooses Chris Williams as his replacement, and the boys are reluctant to accept a coach in a wheelchair. Coach Robeson comes to practice to support Coach Williams, and he tells the team to give their new coach “a chance”—and “give each other a chance” (173). At their next practice, Coach Williams has scattered sports equipment all over the field, and he divides the team into pairs with one partner blindfolded, while the other must act as their eyes and guide them to pick up the equipment. Coach Williams makes Rob and Matt a team, and Rob refuses to speak to Matt at all, making their task nearly impossible to complete. Finally, Rob breaks down and again accuses Matt: “My brother died / because of you” (158).

Matt tells Rob he lost his brother too—and it was his “fault” (191). Matt goes on to describe how his mother left their home and asked Matt to watch his little brother, but when Matt ventured outside to look for items the soldiers dropped, his brother followed him. Matt’s brother stepped on a mine and lost his legs and fingers, and Matt has always believed he’s responsible. Once Matt has finished his story, Rob is no longer angry, and he even offers Matt his bandanna to wipe his tears. When the boys finally finish their task—long after the rest of the pairs—the rest of the baseball team cheers for them.

Matt knows he “need[s]” (202) to share his story with his adoptive parents as well, and once he does so, he’s surprised to find they’re not angry or disappointed. Rather, they tell Matt they’ll always love him, no matter what. Matt responds by asking if they can try to find his mother and brother one day, and his adoptive mom promises him they’ll try.

Rob and Matt become friendlier, and when the team visits Coach Robeson in the hospital, Matt and Rob go into his room together. Matt thanks the coach for all he’s done—he no longer hesitates to use words to express “what matters most” (211). Jeff praises Matt for his increasing skills in piano, and at another veterans’ meeting, Matt finally speaks up to share a memory of the “beautiful” (213) parts of Vietnam. Over the weekend, the baseball team goes bowling, and Coach Robeson shows up, his voice “stronger” (216). Matt and his parents hope the coach’s cancer will go into remission, but they understand nothing is certain.

In the final scene of the novel, Matt plays with Tommy outside and remembers his Vietnamese brother, stating his brother’s name, Huu Hein, for the only time in the novel. Matt proclaims that Huu Hein “follows me still” (219)—that Matt always carries his memories and love for his brother with him—and that “one day” (219), he will find his biological family. As the novel ends, Matt feels safe and secure in his love for both his American and Vietnamese families. While he must continue to live with a traumatic past, he now possesses the strength and confidence to move forward with his life in America.