book review: Pioneer Girl

pioneer girl

PIONEER GIRL by Bich Minh Nguyen. Publisher: Viking (February 11, 2014). Contemporary fiction. Hardcover. 296 pages. ISBN 978-0-670-02509-1.

RATING: *****/5

“So Sam and I grew up as American kids, though we might have looked to others like foreigners. That was our mother, we would have been quick to say. We learned early on to explain her behavior—her fondness for clearance centers, her wariness of school sporting events, her absolute disbelief in compliments. She was one of those fresh-off-the-boat types, we would have said to our friends. Old-school, old-fashioned, old-generation.”

Author Bich Minh Nguyen writes about a Vietnamese-American family and its connection to the beloved American Ingalls-Wilder family as seen through the eyes of a savvy, inquisitive young woman. Almost everyone remembers reading the Little House on the Prairie books about Laura Ingalls and watching the television show.

“So much immigrant desire in this country could be summed up, quite literally, in gold; as shining as the pin Rose had left behind. A promise taken up, held on to for decades, even while Sam and I were reckless with our own history, searching for things we couldn’t yet name. If this Rose was the same Rose of the Little House books, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, then she had defined a part of American desire that my mother understood just as well.”

Many years ago before fleeing Vietnam, Lee’s grandfather tells a story of an unusual American woman reporter visiting his village and 88 Café. She spent time speaking with him. She left behind a gold pin with a little house etched on it. When young Lee reads the Little House books many years later she connects the pin to a passage in one of the books and wonders if it could possibly be Wilder’s pin but she’s young and doesn’t think of it again.

Now in her 20s she’s completing her dissertation on Edith Wharton [“Valerie was the one who’d asked what none of my other professors had broached: Was I sure Wharton was my thing? Ethnic lit, she reminded me, was hotter right now and might make me more marketable.”] and returns home to the usual misunderstandings from her traditional mother who can’t understand why Lee’s getting a PhD in English and can’t just help with the family’s Vietnamese restaurant. Lee starts researching her possible family connection to the pin again. And in doing so she discovers her own desires for the future.

Pioneer Girl is about second-generation immigrants, born in the United States who still feel very much bound to their family’s and country’s customs even though they’ve never traveled to their homeland. It’s fascinating and reads like a memoir. Paralleling the stories of PhD student Lee Lien and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter Rose Wilder proves a truly clever way to describe this unique immigrant experience as it is very much like that of those pioneers who braved the new frontier traveling West so many years ago. I couldn’t put this down. It’s an energetic read and one of the best reads of the year.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received these book for review from Viking/Penguin Group.

Pioneer Girl: A Novel

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