Friday, February 28, 2014

Pioneer Girl, or little Vietnamese cafe in the suburbs

Posted By on 02.28.14 at 04:28 PM

pioneer_girl.jpg
It's kind of amazing, if you think about it, how many common experiences have never been described in fiction, even though they seem so obvious in retrospect. For instance, how many bookish girls have read the Little House series and desperately wanted to be Laura Ingalls, to be a brave and plucky pioneer girl and live in a log cabin or a hole in the ground and get to be around horses all the time and churn butter?

Wendy McClure explored this phenomenon in her wonderful 2011 memoir The Wilder Life. Now it's gotten a fictional treatment in Bich Minh Nguyen's lovely new novel Pioneer Girl.

Lee Lien, the heroine of Pioneer Girl, does not, at first glance, have much in common with Laura Ingalls. She's the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants who left just before the fall of Saigon and made their way to the midwest, where they worked not on farms but in Chinese buffets and, eventually, a Vietnamese cafe. Lee's father died when she was young; her tough, critical mother has always blatantly favored Lee's loser older brother, Sam. Now in her mid-20s, Lee returns home to the Chicago suburbs broke and jobless after earning her PhD—her dissertation was on Edith Wharton, an author, she observes, that's as unlike her as it's possible to be—and ends up working with her mother and grandfather in the family restaurant, the Lotus Leaf.

Soon enough, while rummaging through her mother's jewelry box, she stumbles onto a mystery: a gold pin engraved with a picture of a little house. The pin, according to family legend, was presented to her grandfather, Ong Hai, by an American woman named Rose who spent a week in the summer of 1965 hanging out at the cafe he'd owned back in Saigon. The pin also looks a lot like the description of the pin Almanzo Wilder gives to Laura as a Christmas gift at the end of These Happy Golden Years, the last book in the series. Laura and Almanzo had a daughter named Rose who became a journalist and reported on Vietnam for the Saturday Evening Post in 1965. Could the two pins be the same?

Since she's got lots of time on her hands, and since she has mad research skills, Lee decides to investigate. Her quest takes her to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, where, weirdly, Rose Wilder Lane's papers are stored (including an early draft of Little House in the Big Woods, also called "Pioneer Girl"); to Mansfield, Missouri, where Laura (with a lot of help from Rose) wrote the Little House books; and to San Francisco, where Rose lived as an adult.

Nguyen
  • Richard Allnut
  • Nguyen
Pioneer Girl isn't a children's book, but it shares the sense of possibility inherent in some of the greatest children's books—including the Little House series—that adventures don't just happen to heroic people and that someday you too will get your own great quest. (I'm afraid I embraced this notion a bit too literally as a child. It led to a great deal of disappointment.) Like all great literary quests, Lee's journey becomes less about the origins of the pin than about her own journey of self-discovery, and she realizes, as an Asian-American and the daughter of immigrants, she has a lot more in common with the Ingallses and with Rose—who'd escaped Mansfield as soon as she could—than she originally thought.

In our own way, Sam and I had felt that restlessness too. That desire to be free of our family's choices, even though at the same time we knew how much we owed—our very existence—to them. The fact was, we had grown up Asian American in a mostly white landscape. There were consequences for that: a sense of imbalance, a subconscious avoidance of mirrors. Who wouldn't want to be rid of that, untethered from such a fixed identity?

There you go: you don't have to be born in a log cabin to be a pioneer girl.

Nguyen's descriptions of Chinese buffets and the kitchen of the Lotus Leaf, by the way, have a bit in common with the housekeeping scenes in the Little House books: descriptions of very hard work that you might be able to reproduce at home, but why would you want to? Except that Ong Hai's banh mi sound as ethereal and mouth-watering as the vanity cakes in On the Banks of Plum Creek. The Lotus Leaf joins the Golden Unicorn from Jami Attenberg's The Middlesteins on my list of favorite fictitious restaurants in the Chicago suburbs.

Aimee Levitt writes about books on Fridays.

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