Rated Reads

Pioneer Girl

by Bich Minh Nguyen

Rated: Moderate

Lee Lien, freshly finished with her doctorate, finds herself having to return home to her mom and grandfather in the suburbs of Chicago when she is unable to find a job in her field of American literature. She knows she will have to face her Vietnamese mother’s scorn for her study and the expectation that she help out in the family’s Asian restaurant. Her older brother has even less patience for the family climate and has left home for greener pastures, with little contact.

When Lee discovers the possibility that an older woman who visited her family’s cafe in Vietnam in the 1970s was actually Rose Wilder Lane, a well-known writer at the time and sole child of Laura Ingalls Wilder, she feels compelled to find out all she can about it. Far easier to escape into that world, after all, than face some harsh realities. She always loved the Little House on the Prairie books and sees a huge disconnect between the family life she read about and the one she experiences as a Vietnamese-American, with a mother who shares very little with her and a grandfather who possibly has whipped up heavily edited stories of her long-dead father and their past. As Lee goes to great lengths to prove to herself (and possibly others) that Rose was the journalist in that cafe decades earlier, plus maybe even some Wilder secrets (pun intended), she has some time to figure out where she as an Asian-American fits not only in her immigrant family, but in the culture at large.

The concept of this book was really a novel one, and I am happy to report it was executed well too. I enjoyed reading so much about the Little House books and Laura and Rose, and I enjoyed as much or more reading about the Asian-American experience. My husband is also very Americanized but raised by Asian immigrants (but Filipino instead of Vietnamese), and what the main character wrote about all her frustrations and difficulties and fish-out-of-water feelings sounded eerily familiar. And the ways she described it all were entertaining and vivid. (Just read a few pages about those ubiquitous greasy Oriental buffets dotting the middle-American landscape, and you’ll see just what I mean.) The point of view draws readers in, and the writing is immediate, fresh, and engaging.

Pioneer Girl satisfies on all fronts.

Rated: Moderate, for five uses of strong language, some other milder language, and “off-screen” sex scenes.

— Reviewed by Cathy Carmode Lim

Cathy Carmode Lim has been reviewing books for newspapers for more than 20 years, two of which she was a book page editor. She founded Rated Reads in January 2008.

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  • Pioneer Girl
  • by Bich Minh Nguyen
  • Rated: Moderate
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Reviewer: