Title: Pioneer Girl
Author: Bich Minh Nguyen
Pub. Date: February 10, 2014
Source: finished copy via publisher (thank you, Viking!!)
Summary: Jobless with a PhD, Lee Lien returns home to her Chicago suburb from grad school, only to find herself contending with issues she’s evaded since college. But when her brother disappears, he leaves behind an object from their mother’s Vietnam past that stirs up a forgotten childhood dream: a gold-leaf brooch, abandoned by an American reporter in Saigon back in 1965, that might be an heirloom belonging to Laura Ingalls Wilder. As Lee explores the tenuous facts of this connection, she unearths more than expected—a trail of clues and enticements that lead her from the dusty stacks of library archives to hilarious prairie life reenactments and ultimately to San Francisco, where her findings will transform strangers’ lives as well as her own.
Genre: Adult, Fiction, Contemporary
Shortly after obtaining her PhD yet still unable to find a job, Lee Lien returns home. Her relationship with her mother is frosty at best, yet her beloved grandfather always finds a way to smooth things over. The family’s latest restaurant, the Lotus Leaf, has a steady string of customers, and Lee is more than ready to try a few changes, switch things around in an attempt to really get business booming. The Liens’ world comes to a halt with the unexpected return of Sam, Lee’s brother. As the oldest (and the male), Sam is the golden child, the one who is set to inherit the restaurant (whether he wants it or not), and his actions are always forgiven. In his mother’s eyes he can do no wrong. So when he empties the cash register – and his mother’s jewelry box – to start a new life out west, Mrs. Lien cleans the entire house and waits for the day when he’ll return.
With Sam’s departure, Lee discovers a token he left behind for her: a small pin from a lifetime ago in Vietnam. Since she was a child, Lee has heard her mother and grandfather tell stories about their cafe in Saigon and how they were visited by a nice American woman. Whether she purposefully left the pin behind they can’t say, but it has remained with them decades later, making the trip to America and a new life. As Lee digs deeper into the pin’s story, she uncovers a hidden history that could potentially link her family to Laura Ingalls Wilder.
I had been looking forward to Pioneer Girl since I first heard about it last year and I’m thrilled to say it did not disappoint! In fact, it exceeded all expectations and then some! Essentially there are two stories in this novel: Lee’s and Rose’s. When I read novels where the focus is on multiple characters, I usually find myself preferring one over the other but I’m pleased to say that was not the case in Pioneer Girl. I was as invested in Lee’s story as I was in Rose Wilder Lane’s and because of that, I wound up breezing through the book much quicker than I would have liked (this is a novel to be slowly savored).
As interesting as Lee’s family was, Rose was an equally fascinating woman in her own right. Prior to Pioneer Girl I had a rough idea of who the Wilder family was and what The Little House on the Prairie series was all about. Somehow I managed to skip these books as a child, but Pioneer Girl piqued my interest. Especially with the rumors that Rose was actually the writer, not Laura, and that Rose would fudge details and expand upon anecdotes for the sake of a good story. She even demanded that Laura write solely in third person in their letters!
Despite being a history buff (and spending many elementary school computer classes playing Oregon Trail), I tend to see the Old West and prairie life through rose-colored glasses. While reading Pioneer Girl it became all too evident that times were hard – if not downright brutal – for pioneers. Rose was the only child of the Wilders to survive to adulthood and she herself lost her only child after a few days. Her relationship with Laura was hardly affectionate and she wound up leaving home to make it on her own in a city. Rose married for sex and divorced the man a few years later, determined to lead an independent life. As her journalism career took off, Rose traveled the world – most notably to Vietnam where she covered the war in the 1960s. Her vocal political stance took on a life of its own and she’s now considered to be one of the founders of the American Libertarian Movement, along with Ayn Rand.
If I could go back and read Pioneer Girl all over again (I definitely see a re-read of this book in the future!) I would take my time with it and really sink into this world of Vietnamese cuisine and farmsteads. Nguyen doesn’t have many books to her name at this point: Short Girls and a memoir entitled Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, but they’re now on my radar and I can’t wait to track down my own copies! Whether you’re looking for diversity (her novels feature Vietnamese families and culture) or simply want a good book, Bich Minh Nguyen is an author to keep your eye on.
As I was reading it became undeniable that Pioneer Girl will become a go-to recommendation for both customers and friends alike and I’m ecstatic to have an extra copy to give away!
I’ll announce the winners on February 10, Pioneer Girl‘s release date!