Title: Pioneer Girl
Author: Bich Minh Nguyen
Release Date: February 6, 2014
Publisher: Viking Books
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Cultural Fiction
Rating: 5 out of 5
After graduating with her Ph.D. in literature, the last thing Lee Lien thought she’d be doing is moving home. But without a job, that’s just what she’s forced to do. She spends her days fighting with her mother and working in her family’s cafe and her nights applying to jobs and hoping to find a way out of her dead-end misery. But when Lee comes across a pin that has been in her family since her grandfather’s days running a restaurant in Vietnam, she becomes convinced that it belonged to Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and becomes consumed with finding the truth behind it.
A coming-of-age tale about a Vietnamese-American woman who is trying to find her identity through Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic novels, Pioneer Girl is an amazing book that is both easy to read and will leave you thinking long after the last pages are turned.
There is so much I can say about Pioneer Girl, so I’ll begin with this: no matter what I convey in this review, it’s simply not going to do this amazing book justice. This novel just has so many layers—on the surface, it’s an easy-to-read and enjoyable novel of a woman who hasn’t quite found herself. But peel that back and you’ll find so much social commentary and wisdom in this ambitious novel.
Let’s start with Rose Wilder Lane. Most readers reveled in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels as a child. Who didn’t want to be out there living the pioneer life? In Pioneer Girl, Nguyen (through Lee) dissects these books. She places them in their proper historical context, discussing the controversy about the books (did you know that Rose Wilder Lane possibly ghostwrote them? GASP!) but also evoking a certain nostalgia about them. There’s a lot of history in this novel, and it’s presented in an absolutely fascinating way. Nguyen is an immensely talented writer, and her love for these books shines through on every page.
Through the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, Lee goes on her own journey in Pioneer Girl. She is trying to create her own personal narrative through these books. Lee has spent her life fighting so hard against her mother’s expectations and moods, and by being an “other” while growing up in the overwhelmingly white Midwest. She’s defined herself by what she’s not. But what is Lee? Who is she? Where does her identity lie? This is what Lee spends much of the book trying to figure out, and the vehicle she uses are the Little House books and the search she embarks on to discover whether Rose Wilder Lane did indeed visit her family’s restaurant in Saigon. It’s a coming-of-age novel in its own sort of way, as Lee tries so desperately to find meaning in her life.
Nguyen also juxtaposes Laura Ingalls Wilder’s and Rose Wilder Lane’s journey against that of Lee’s family’s immigrant experience. In some ways, the Little House books are the quintessential American story, the affirmation of the American dream. Work hard, homestead, raise a family, live through hardship, help others, live the pioneer experience and one day, you will be rewarded. But that’s not the case anymore; now it seems as though the American dream is actually achieved by the immigrants who come to the United States seeking a better life. In some ways, they are so much the same. In Pioneer Girl, it becomes clear that Lee’s family has been living their own version of the pioneer saga, forging ahead again and again in the face of adversity.
There is so much more to say about Pioneer Girl; the disparity in the way Lee and her brother, Sam, are treated just because Lee is a girl. The selfishness with which Sam lives his life, while Lee cannot shake the childhood need for some sort of parental approval. As I said, this is a novel with so many different facets. It explores so many issues, but it’s never heavy or difficult. It’s a novel that flies by, that’s easy to read and enjoyable while still having amazing depth. What’s more, the Little House references will absolutely enthrall any reader who enjoyed these books as a child; I can’t say enough great things to say about Pioneer Girl, so what I will tell you is to absolutely read it as soon as possible. Quite simply, I loved this book.
Other books by Bich Minh Nguyen: