A golden brooch inspires a Vietnamese-American in search of Laura Ingalls Wilder

 <span class="cutline_leadin">Pioneer Girl. </span>Bich Minh Nguyen. Viking. 296 pages. $26.95.
Pioneer Girl. Bich Minh Nguyen. Viking. 296 pages. $26.95.

With her sincere and moving second novel, Bich Minh Nguyen defies easy literary categorization by entwining two vastly different narratives of migration: the intimate story of one family’s journey to and through America and that of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose, whose experiences formed the basis for Little House on the Prairie.

Lee Lien is every sensible mother’s worst nightmare: a doctoral candidate in English literature. Lee bears the expectations of parents who traded the hell of the Vietnam War for the purgatory of Midwestern pan-Asian buffets. Lee must not only fulfill her mother’s hopes but also justify her sacrifices, a heavy load for anyone to shoulder, particularly when one’s backpack is already stuffed with early 20th century novels.

But the plight of the overeducated and underemployed is turned on its head when Lee’s prodigal brother absconds with their mother’s jewelry. He leaves behind a golden brooch that first entered the Lien family 40 years earlier, via an American reporter who frequented their grandfather’s Saigon cafe. That reporter may have been Rose Wilder and the brooch may be the same gold-bar pin that appears as an engagement gift to Rose’s mother in Little House on the Prairie.

Thus begins a literary mystery, and Lee begins her own westward journey. Clues emerge a little too conveniently for the plot to create much tension, but Nguyen is more interested in the thornier and less solvable mysteries of familial obligation.

Rose Wilder did visit Vietnam in 1965, but her remarkable life is overshadowed by the reality that she’s best known for being her mother’s daughter. There is still controversy regarding her role in her mother’s work (she may have ghostwritten the Little House series). This plot line dovetails beautifully with the search for the origin of objects, art and people, one of Nguyen’s central concerns.

Even more poignant, though, is the exploration of generational self-sacrifice. The idea that Rose would have written, without accepting credit, one of the enduring classics of Americana resonates with Lee, whose relationship with her own mother is every bit as fraught. The parallels between these mothers and daughters are developed with such grace and sensitivity they seamlessly become two halves of a singular story.

The complexities of race, assimilation and cultural stereotypes are thoughtfully observed. Now and then, however, the narration veers into textbook territory (“Media images tend to desexualize Asian guys and hypersexualize the women,” Lee explains to her brother). The academic tone risks diluting the potency of the characters’ experience.

But these quibbles don’t diminish the beauty of Pioneer Girl, which remains a surprising synthesis of the personal and the public, the intimate and the epic, the historical and the fictional. Nguyen takes two disparate strands of our national mythology and weaves them into a powerful and wholly original American saga.

Anthony Marra reviewed this book for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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