Pioneer Girl: A Novel

By Bich Minh Nguyen

(Viking, $26.95, 304 pages)

Who is this author?

Bich Minh Nguyen, whose name is pronounced Bit Min New-’win but prefers to be called Beth, is the author of the memoir, “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner,” which won a PEN/Jerard Fund Award and the novel “Short Girls,” which won an American Book Award. She teaches literature and creative writing in San Francisco, where she lives with her husband and their two children.

She understands the immigrant life well. As a baby, she and her father, older sister, grandmother and uncles—but not her mother — fled Saigon and landed in Grand Rapids, Mich., where her father worked in  a factory and her grandmother took care of the children. This experience engendered Nguyen’s deep interest, explored in her books, about what makes a family and what makes someone an American.

What is this book about?

You would hardly expect a Vietnamese American family to have a connection with the author of the classic “The Little House on the Prairie” books, but Bich Minh Nguyen makes it plausible in “Pioneer Girl.”

Its central character, Lee Lien, has earned a Ph. D,  but can’t land a job, and returns to her home outside Chicago, where she has a difficult mother to deal with and a family restaurant to help run. Then her brother goes missing, quite mysteriously, and she discovers he has left her a note and a gold-leaf brooch her mother once had in Saigon. Lee has long imagined that it may have belonged to “Little House” author Laura Ingalls Wilder and was left in Vietnam in 1965 by Wilders ’journalist  daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Lee is drawn into the researching the brooch and its true history as she tries to find out why her brother left and where he is, how to cope with her cranky mother – and not so incidentally, how to find her own place in the world.

Why you’ll like it:

Based on my reading of “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner,” I can tell you that Nguyen is a gifted writer and insightful about life. She is very good at showing the often poignant and occasionally absurd situations that a child of immigrants can find herself in while navigating a country and culture not her own – at least, that is, until she makes it her own.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “As a child, Lee Lien loved to imagine that her mother’s gold brooch originally belonged to Laura Ingalls Wilder, and had been left behind in a Saigon cafe by Laura’s daughter, Rose, many years ago. Now unable to find a job after graduating with a Ph.D. in literature, Lee, the American-born daughter of Vietnamese immigrant parents, returns home to Chicago to help out with the family restaurant. This smart novel by American Book Award–winner Nguyen aptly conveys the anxieties connected to simultaneously trying to find one’s own way and live up to family expectations. When her brother Sam mysteriously disappears, leaving behind a cryptic note attached to the brooch, Lee begins looking into whether there’s any truth to her belief that the brooch’s original owner was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter. The question soon becomes an obsession, and she heads westward, eventually coming to San Francisco, searching for any small clue to the story behind the gold brooch. She must also deal with an irascible mother who believes that Lee’s Ph.D. is “a fake degree for a fake doctor,” and with returning to a life from which her degree was meant to free her. By acknowledging but not over-emphasizing how Lee’s identity has been shaped by her immigrant parents, Nguyen creates an insightful depiction of American life.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “A Vietnamese-American scholar finds familiar ground when she stumbles across a lost fragment in the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder and daughter Rose Wilder Lane. The third-person perspective of the author’s novel Short Girls lent that work some distance. This more intimate first-person narrative is by Lee Lien, who has a newly minted doctorate in 19th-century literature but few job prospects. The book contrasts Lee’s life with that of journalist and Little House on the Prairie collaborator Rose Wilder Lane. Lee, who has moved back in with her difficult mother and works at her mother’s coffee/noodle house, has a combative relationship with her mother, much as the talented journalist Rose had with her own. “You are alike,” Lee’s grandfather tells her, much to her dismay. The discovery of a mysterious gold pin, etched with a little house and possibly abandoned by Rose in Saigon in 1965, leads Lee toward the book’s pivot point, a mystery about a potential descendent of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The subject of that investigation is the weakest part of the narrative, leaning toward rom-com meet-cutes and a dubious liaison. That said, it’s clear that Nguyen has a perceptive understanding of the tension between mothers and daughters and the troubling insights to be gained from digging into the past. An unexpected pleasure,  with a well-drawn and compelling narrator.”

“A narrow gold pin, engraved with a small house on a lake, is found at the table in Ong Hai’s Saigon restaurant where Rose, an American war correspondent, takes tea each afternoon. Ten years later, when Ong flees Vietnam for America with his daughter, that brooch is one of the few items he takes and will become the catalyst for the action in Nguyen’s novel of migration, family, and the search for rootedness. Like Little House on the Prairie’s Ingalls family that so enthralls her, eight-year-old Lee Lien, brother Sam, and their widowed mother and grandfather wander from one Midwestern state to another, working long hours in the restaurant business. As transients, Lee and Sam make few friends and are embarrassed by their mother’s immigrant ways, her cold detachment, and her refusal to talk about their father’s untimely death. Each sibling seems locked in a continuum of inexplicable hostility with their exacting mother. It’s not until Lee earns a PhD and returns home jobless that the gold pin resurfaces, taking her on a scholarly hunt for Laura and Rose Wilder and their heirs. VERDICT Nguyen draws a parallel between Rose and Laura Wilder and Lee and her mother. Though it’s a bit of a stretch, this imaginative device spices up an otherwise conventional novel about the constant tug between first-generation immigrants and their more assimilated progeny,” says Library Journal.

“Elegant, sharp-eyed, and very funny, Pioneer Girl is ultimately about how one finds kinship – familial, cultural, literary – that transcends the usual lexicon about identity and belonging. Navigating Vietnamese ‘immigrant guilt’ and a stalled academic career, Lee Lien finds escape in trying to solve a literary mystery which leads her deep into her own heart and history. A wonderful read!” says Cristina Garcia, author of King of Cuba and Dreaming in Cuban.

When is it available?

You will find “Pioneer Girl” on the new books shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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