The first books I ever remember having read to me were the “Little House on the Prairie” series. The first chapter books I read on my own were the “Little House on the Prairie” series. I watched every episode of the television show and still know the plots of many of them, though they have little relation to the books I’ve read to the point of being dog-eared.
The point is, when I saw the cover of Bich Minh Nguyen’s PIONEER GIRL, I was hooked.
I wanted to be Laura growing up. Why wouldn’t I want to read about a girl who wanted to be Laura even though I’m a grownup?
The parallel that Nguyen uses with Lee, the main character, and real life Laura is genius. Lee is a first-generation American, born to Vietnamese immigrants after the Vietnam War. Lee is essentially a pioneer so it comes across as absolutely natural that she would identify with pioneer girl Laura. And that’s what this novel is about – searching for identity in the midst of preserving the identity of one’s family and one’s culture.
Lee’s mother demands a lot of her daughter and her son, and they both react differently and they both have trouble seeing the real motive behind her actions. Lee and Sam want to shed their Vietnamese nature and become something they see as fully American and essentially run-of-the-mill. Lee stretches truths, flat out lies, and blatantly hides from her mother even after she earns a PhD in literature. But at the same time, she is a dutiful enough daughter that she comes home to work in the family restaurant and isn’t naive enough to realize that a part of her deception stems from wanting to protect her mother from the harsh realities of American life, in part because her mother suffered so much in Vietnam and worked so hard to create a perfect world for her children.
This isn’t much different than Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her parents made decisions for her and made it clear she was meant to do certain things in life. She protected them by pretending she understood it, liked it, and was happy to do it. That wasn’t always true. And when she married a man ten years her senior, she left the family almost as soon as she could. That was rare then, really, so she, like Lee in modern day, was a pioneer girl and ends as a pioneer woman.
Nguyen has created an amazing cast of supporting characters for Lee’s; mother, brother, grandfather, best white friends, ex-lovers, new lovers. But Lee is supported too by her connection to the past, whether or not the pin her grandfather got in his Saigon cafe was from Rose Wilder Lane or not, and by Laura, Rose, Almanzo and the rest of the Ingalls family. Nguyen has written Lee into the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library – home of the Rose Wilder Lane papers, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, and various libraries in San Francisco. I’ve never been to any of those places, but they were described so well that I felt like I was.
Perhaps the best thing I can say about PIONEER GIRL is that I’m going to read the “Little House on the Prairie” series again. And it will be lovely.
(I received a copy of PIONEER GIRL through NetGalley and Penguin in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)