Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Unlike some of my friends and coworkers, I was not a huge Laura Ingalls Wilder fan growing up. I read the Little House books, but I don’t remember them having a big impact on my childhood reading. Laura Ingalls Wilder is woven into the literary mystery that is the plot of Bich Minh Nguyen’s novel Pioneer Girl.

Narrator Lee Lien is the daughter of two Vietnamese immigrants. Her father is dead; her mother and grandfather run a restaurant in the Chicago suburbs. Lee has disappointed her mother by getting a PhD in literature instead of something more practical. She continues to disappoint her mother by searching for work in her field, instead of resigning herself to the family business.

Lee is jealous of her older brother, who she sees as her mother’s favorite, and complains about her mother constantly. The family has an heirloom and a story. In 1965 a woman named Rose visited her grandfather’s café in Saigon and left behind a small gold pin. The pin sounds like a gift given to Laura Ingalls Wilder by her fiancé and described in one Wilder’s books. Lee becomes obsessed with trying to discover whether the Rose from the family story was Wilder’s daughter Rose.

There are some great passages in Pioneer Girl. There is a spot-on description of American “Chinese” buffets at the start of Chapter Three and this musing on small towns in the Midwest:

Mansfield, Missouri reminded me of how the past will not be banished. So many small, dying, basically dead towns in the Midwest looked like this. Where once-graceful, ornate courthouses and libraries – back when libraries meant something important, something civic – had been, if not torn down or boarded up, converted dozens of times over into shops and offices and apartments and barely surviving historical societies. There might even be the remains of an ambitious opera house. The nicest building in town was likely to be a funeral home.

Main Street had been built broad, to accommodate horses, buggies, and hitching posts. And surely local efforts tried to preserve the “historic downtown” area. Surely there were sad little parades on Memorial Day or the Fourth of July. In Mansfield a few local “shoppes” offered “olde-fashioned ice cream” and “sewing notions,” but it looked like most of the money was flowing in and out of the paycheck advance and pawn shops. (p. 140)
Still, I had some issues with the novel. The narrator is not very likeable. In addition to being a whiner, she is a thief. While doing research, she steals a photograph, a letter and a book. She talks about racism, ignorance about Asian culture, and stereotyping, but she herself stereotypes, and not in a self-aware manner.

A small band of researchers squinted over Hoover’s notes and newspapers, setting up cameras on tabletop tripods to record their findings. They were a standard lot – frumpy and frowning, pallid and disheveled. (p. 76)

At times I felt that the author was judging the Midwest and finding it wanting (and once the narrator refers to the University of Illinois as “UI,” something no true U of I graduate would ever do). There is a random, out-the-blue sex scene between Lee and someone she just met that seemed pointless.

However, especially in light of recent high profile cases in the U.S. of unarmed black men being killed by white police officers, the themes of this book are quite timely, and I loved the book’s cover. If you are a fan of literary mysteries or novels dealing with stereotyping and race in America, you may find Pioneer Girl an interesting read.

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