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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Book Review: Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen

When I first heard about this book I was both intrigued and confused. A young woman researching Rose Wilder Lane (and Laura Ingalls Wilder by default) to find insights into her own life? Awesome. But the young woman is the daughter Vietnamese immigrants who run an Asian restaurant and this is somehow tied in. Huh?

But trust me, it works.

I too escaped from childhood (and occasionally adulthood) into Wilder's stories of survival and family, like Lee Lien. I was not escaping what looked like an inevitable future as the manager of a Chinese restaurant, however. But when Lee graduates from graduate school and doesn't know what to do with her life, things started to sound very familiar. Moving to a strange land to create a better life for you family - this is the plot of all immigrant families like the Liens, and also the plot of the Ingalls family, moving West for a better shot at success. That parallel had never occurred to me before but it now seems obvious. The American settlers were almost "immigrants" in the Native Americans' lands.

Lee has always been intrigued by a pin that a mysterious American journalist named Rose left in her grandfather's cafe in Vietnam during the war, and later she realized it matches the description of a pin given by Almanzo Wilder to Laura Ingalls, and they had a daughter named Rose who was a journalist and did cover the Vietnam war. Could it be the same Rose? The same pin? Lee is antsy to get out of her mother's house and will use nearly any excuse to do so. Her research takes her to Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas, as this Midwestern woman comes to terms with her place in her family, in her own personal geography, and as she wonders if she too should go west. Along the way she investigates family secrets and tries to find direction for her life.

The book really read like a memoir and I did have to keep reminding myself that it wasn't. It felt very personal and honest. Lee is likable if indecisive and unwilling to cause trouble at home, but she does grow up in the course of her investigation and makes some decisions--some unconscious--about her future. The (fictional) mystery she uncovers about Rose Wilder Lane was intriguing and I found the book, although by no means a thriller or suspenseful, still hard to put down and a fast, easy read. Anyone who has more than a passing interest in the Little House books should most certainly give this one a read. And if you want to read about my visit to The Little House and to Laura and Almanzo's house in Mansfield (which is featured in Pioneer Girl), that post is here.

I received this book for free from the publisher in hopes I would write an honest review.

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