Book review: Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen


All her life, Lee Lien has heard the story: her grandfather once ran a café in Saigon, and one day an American journalist named Rose walked in. Rose was a surprisingly old woman, covering the Vietnam War at a time when few American women were in the country. She and Lee’s grandfather became friends, and Rose left behind a small gold pin. . .

Years later, Lee is an adult who was raised in the American Midwest and now has a Ph.D. in English Literature. She’s also jobless, so has returned to her mother’s house in the Chicago suburbs to work at the family’s Vietnamese café. Restless and wilting under family tensions, Lee one day remembers the gold pin left behind by the mysterious Rose. And Lee remembers that the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder was a journalist named Rose, who covered the Vietnam War in her old age. . .

This novel is part literary mystery, part family drama; it’s a look at the second-generation Asian-American immigrant experience through a fresh and surprising lens. I love the parallels which writer Nguyen has found between the Ingalls’ family experience and Lee’s. Like Charles Ingalls, Lee’s mother has a restless drive to always be moving on to the next thing, the next town, the better opportunity (which, for her, has been running a series of Chinese buffet restaurants throughout the Midwest). Lee herself, as comes clear through the novel, has inherited something of that same restlessness, even as her desire to move to new places goes against the traditional values which would have her stick close to her family.

As Lee hunts down the mystery of Rose’s gold pin, sleuthing in library archives and tracing Rose’s path across America, the narrative picks up speed and I found myself flipping pages late into the night. But for me, it’s the focus on Lee’s own family which was most compelling. Nguyen has a keen eye for those family silences, the awkward tensions between generations that so often exist in recent immigrant families. And although the family in this story has a background very different from my own. . . there are still points of commonality in the Asian-American experience, and I felt those points keenly. I love the emotional honesty of Nguyen’s book: there are no easy reconciliations here, no Hallmark moments. It’s an honesty extended to the examination of Ingalls mythology and the Little House in the Prairie series itself, which of course is also emblematic of America’s pioneer past mythology. This is a compelling and sensitive twining of narratives, telling an American story in a new way.

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