12 May / Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen
Regardless of how many more books I might read this year, Bich Minh Nguyen‘s second novel (and third title) will undoubtedly remain one of my top three for 2014. So engrossing is this Girl, that even Bernadette Dunne’s occasionally faltering narration (oh, those fake Asian accents!) couldn’t put me off. Mark my words: if nothing else, the ingenious layers are going to prove dissertation-worthy and beyond.
How fitting then, that the protagonist is a just-completed PhD grad in American Literature. Still jobless, Lee Lien is back at home in a Chicago suburb with her widowed mother and grandfather. Her older brother has run off (again), this time absconding with all their mother’s jewelry. The single piece he left behind is a certain gold pin, which decades before was left behind in Lee’s grandfather’s café in 1965 Saigon. The owner then was a silver-haired American reporter on assignment named Rose. The pin was one of the few mementos the family carried from Vietnam.
Lee’s brother’s leftover decision prods her to google “Rose article Vietnam … 1965,” and she’s surprised to find “the Rose Wilder Lane Papers in West Branch, Iowa.” Yes, as in Little House on the Prairie and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Pulling out her favorite childhood series, Lee finds a fortuitous passage in The Happy Golden Years about a gold pin that Laura received from her husband: “On its flat surface was etched a little house, and before it along the bar lay a tiny lake, and spray of grasses and leaves.” The familiar description prompts a shiver: “Could it actually be the pin my mother and grandfather had kept?”
And thus Lee’s cross-country, cross-cultural, cross-family journey begins…
Certainly you’ll be making your own literary discoveries, but allow me to suggest a few of those multi-layers that will merit treatises:
- The title: So many Pioneer Girls populate these pages, each – regardless of where she might originate – in search of “the hoped-for landscape that always lies just beyond to the west.” Pioneer Girl also happens to be the title of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s original memoir about growing up in the 1800s.
- Geography: “Why would anyone in the Midwest, especially a nonwhite person, want to stay there? How could life not be better out West, in California?”
- Identity and gender: “‘Being an Asian guy is totally different from being an Asian girl,” which is something beyond “‘Every Asian or Asian American person knows what it means to feel like a freak.'”
- Food: the ubiquity of Americanized pan-Asian buffets in every smalltown, USA vs. the trendiness of “true ethnic food.”
- Mother/daughter relationships: the complicated, albeit instantly recognizable dynamics between the Asian immigrant mother and her Americanized daughter – which can transform from cringing to guffaw-inducing to heart-lacerating in two seconds flat.
- Literary reclamation (and mother/daughter relationship, part II): Rose Wilder Lane was a bestselling author (Free Land) and publishing veteran well before she ghostwrote her mother’s Little House series, yet today her many literary merits are lost to obscurity.
- Literary appropriation: ” … how I worried that my decision to stick with [Edith] Wharton for my dissertation might seem like identity avoidance. Which maybe it was. I used to figure that white people who studied nonwhite people had to have some kind of subconscious fetishizing or cultural appropriation going on. But … there was no denying that appropriation went around the other way too.”
Big Themes, yes … but don’t let the Issues distract for long. Trust me, by book’s end, delight is what you’ll remember most.