Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"Pioneer Girl," by Bich Minh Nguyen

Last year I heard my University of San Francisco colleague (she is faculty member in the Masters in Writing Program), Bich Minh Nguyen, read from her work, and was very impressed. Now I have read her novel "Pioneer Girl" (Viking, 2014) and thoroughly enjoyed it. I love a literary mystery. I usually thoroughly enjoy stories about academics. I am drawn to stories of growing up, especially those of young women. And I am interested in stories of those who grow up in multicultural settings, such as in the homes of immigrant parents. “Pioneer Girl” brings these four strands, and of course more (I don’t want to be reductive) together, so for me the novel was compelling on several levels. The main character, Lee Lien, grows up in her Vietnamese-American family in the Midwest. Her father has died fairly young, and her mother is closemouthed about various aspects of his past as well as her own past and present. She is also very critical of Lee Lien and her brother Sam, although Sam gets a pass to some extent because he is a son. Lee has earned her PhD in literature, but hasn’t been able to find an academic job. Her mother thinks a PhD in literature is useless, and wants Lee to stay at home and work in the family restaurant. The unique aspect of the main character's story is the unexpected (possible) intertwining of some of her own family history and that of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s mother Rose, this possibility initially based on a mysterious piece of jewelry. Lee becomes fascinated with the possible connections, and uses her literary and research skills to pursue the mystery in various libraries and historical sites related to the Wilders. Both the family story and the literary mystery (especially about an author whose work I know well and love, and read to my daughter when she was little) are intriguing, and combined they are more so. There is also romance, failed romance, possible romance, friendship, insights into academe, and other aspects of the novel to keep readers eagerly reading. The writing is descriptive and evocative. For example, the description of the restaurant, its tastes, smells, and sounds, is vivid. I highly recommend “Pioneer Girl.”
Site Meter