Published by Penguin on February 6, 2014
From an award-winning author, a novel about a Vietnamese American family’s ties to The Little House on the Prairie. Jobless with a PhD, Lee Lien returns home to her Chicago suburb from grad school, only to find herself contending with issues she’s evaded since college. But when her brother disappears, he leaves behind an object from their mother’s Vietnam past that stirs up a forgotten childhood dream: a gold-leaf brooch, abandoned by an American reporter in Saigon back in 1965, that might be an heirloom belonging to Laura Ingalls Wilder. As Lee explores the tenuous facts of this connection, she unearths more than expected—a trail of clues and enticements that lead her from the dusty stacks of library archives to hilarious prairie life reenactments and ultimately to San Francisco, where her findings will transform strangers’ lives as well as her own. A dazzling literary mystery about the true origins of a time-tested classic, Pioneer Girl is also the deeply moving tale of a second-generation Vietnamese daughter, the parents she struggles to honor, the missing brother she is expected to bring home—even as her discoveries yield dramatic insights that will free her to live her own life to its full potential.
I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
It’s no secret that I love the Little House series and its accompanying biographies, memoirs, monographs, and novelizations. I read Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie last year. I loved reading about McClure’s personal experience with the series. When NetGalley offered me Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen, I naturally jumped at the opportunity to review it.
Pioneer Girl reads like a memoir. In fact, I didn’t realize that it wasn’t a memoir until about 20% in when we finally learn that the main character’s name is Lee. I was a little disappointed—-I love reading personal stories about interacting with the Little House series. I crave those stories because it means that I’m not alone in having an important connection to the series. Learning that Pioneer Girl was fiction burst my bubble a little. I wanted Rose to have given the gold brooch to Nguyen’s grandfather so badly. But once the shock wore off, I came to understand that it doesn’t matter if it’s a memoir about the exact experiences of the author. The author still has a personal relationship with the series that I can relate to. It’s just in a different genre.
With that out of the way, I really enjoyed the way Nguyen crafts her main character, Lee. I can relate to her in many ways. I have a complicated family. I just dropped out of a PhD program. Lee’s fears about her PhD in Literature were literally my fears a few months ago. Having such a deep connection to a character is a new experience. I can usually find at least one character quality that I can relate to on some level, but having so many created an intense reading experience. I compulsively read the story because I felt like Lee’s answers could be the answers that I search for.
I also found it refreshing to read a non-white perspective of the series. So much of what I read about Laura Ingalls Wilder is very white bread and mayonnaise with a touch of “the pioneers were so brave and are representative of what ‘MURICA stands for.” Nguyen’s Pioneer Girl shows me that the series is not just emblematic of the “American” experience. It’s ubiquitous and can mean something to anyone, anywhere and it’s shown in the parallels between Laura’s family and Lee’s family. Laura’s pa and Lee’s ba are similar—-in constant search for something new, something that will bring them closer to their goals. Her older brother Sam shows the promise of what Mary could have accomplished had she not gone blind. Even Laura’s daughter, Rose, and Lee share similar stories. Both must battle cold mothers and follow their heart.
Nguyen shocked me with the literary mystery included in the last half of the book. I actually had to Google it to see if it’s true. As far as I can tell, it’s not. But it was exhilarating to think about in a low-stakes Da Vinci Code kind of way.
In the end, Nguyen crafts a book about what it means to connect with an iconic series as a person who is constantly singled out for their ethnic difference. #weneeddiversebooks It’s a refreshing way to think about the Little House series.
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