It is no surprise that I was quite interested in reading Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen who connects a Vietnamese American family to that of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Obviously, there is no secret that the author of the Little House series is among my many
obsessions interests. I’ve written about that many times on this blog, but what I don’t think that I’ve ever gone into is my questions around the series and why–a Canadian girl of Jewish descent–finds the series so compelling. I was interested to see how Nguyen deals with this question through the Vietnamese experience.
For me, I think it has something to do with going to a very traditional Jewish day school and having the realities of what happened to the Jewish people shown to me at a very early age. There was a trauma attached to that continues to play itself out in many forms. I started reading the Little House series the same year I saw those images and I suspect that reading about a family who survives starvation, like in The Long Winter, was something that I needed. It is probably why for so many years I would return to it during times of transition because there is something therapeutic in it.
In many ways Nguyen’s Pioneer Girl feels familiar to me because the protagonist, Lee Lien, would read the Little House series when she was young to escape the confines of her constricting Vietnamese family. After spending years away from focusing on her academic career Lee Lien returns home to Chicago to live with her judgemental mother. Jobless, with a PhD in literature, Lien wonders how she has wound up back working with her mother and grandfather’s cafe. Lee’s brother, Sam, has also returned to claim what he believes has been taken from them by their mother. When Sam takes off to California, he leaves in Lee’s possession the gold-leaf brooch of a little house that–according to family legend–was left by an American reporter named Rose who had visited Lee’s grandfather’s cafe in Saigon in 1965.
When she was younger, Lee had imagined that there was a connection between her family and that of the Little House series’ author, Laura Ingalls Wilder who had a daughter named Rose who was also writer and travelled to Vietnam as a correspondent during the war. When Lee decides to explore this tenuous connection, she stumbles upon a literary mystery that takes her across the American midwest, forcing her to retrace her family’s tumultuous history.
When I had finished the novel, I had many questions for Bich Minh Nguyen about her research and putting together such a fascinating “what if” about Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Nguyen kindly agreed to answer my Wilder-geeky questions, demonstrating that our interests can lead to fascinating discoveries and opportunities for growth.
Bich Minh Nguyen (who goes by the name Beth) teaches literature and creative writing in San Francisco, where she lives with her husband and two children. Among her honors are a PEN/Jerard Fund Award and an American Book Award for her novel, Short Girls. Her work has appeared in publications including the Found Magazine anthology and The New York Times.
Mel: It is pretty clear that you’ve read the Little House series multiple times and in your acknowledgements, you write that you had “fretted” over the books since you were eight. I wonder if you could say something about this and how much of this played into the composition of Lee’s feelings towards the novels? Also, how your feelings about the books changed over time.
Bich: As much I’ve always loved the books, I’ve also always been uneasy about some of the politics and about the depiction of Native Americans and African Americans. Even as a child, I knew that no matter how much I identified with Laura, I could never have been her; I couldn’t even have been her childhood friend. There are no Asian Americans in the Little House books! As I got older and kept rereading the books, this recognition grew into reflections about why and how readers identify with characters, and how that feeling is and is not bound by race and gender. The reading experience has become more complicated—which is not a bad thing at all. My feelings about the books also shifted once I had children. I started thinking about Ma and Pa’s point of view much more, and how insane and brave it was of them to strike out on their own, kids in tow.
Mel: I haven’t had a chance to see the Rose papers, and you provide in the novel a pretty good outline of what can be found there. What were some of the most interesting items that you wished could have made it into the novel but didn’t?
Bich: So many old photos, travel souvenirs, receipts, and letters. For the purposes of my novel, I had to focus on aspects relevant to the relationship between Rose and Laura and to the development of the Little House books. But Rose lived a full and vibrant life beyond that and she traveled extensively. There was a ton of fascinating material that couldn’t find a place in Pioneer Girl. Perhaps another book…
Mel: There is a big question among Wilder fans about the relationship between Laura and Rose and her daughter’s contribution to the series. How did you come to terms with siding one way or the other when there are still so many questions? It seems to me that the answer lies in Lee’s feelings towards her own mother. Perhaps you can expand on this idea?
Bich: To me, it seems pretty clear that Rose had a substantial and crucial role in shaping the books. Comparing Laura’s unedited writing, along with The First Four Years, against the original published Little House series, and comparing those against Rose’s own novels—so much is revealed. The Little House books hew much more closely to Rose’s voice and style. For my novel, I wanted the narrator, Lee, to experience a mother-daughter relationship that echoed, somewhat, the turmoil of Rose and Laura’s relationship. At the heart of their conflicts is a question of who gets to control the family story.
Mel: I appreciated the parallels you made between the Vietnamese American experience, Lee’s family’s transitory existence in the midwest, and that of Laura’s childhood. Did you find that these themes presented themselves as you were doing your research, or, as you were developing Lee’s character? Or, was it something altogether different?
Bich: I actually had these ideas vaguely in mind before I started writing. For years, I had thought it kind of funny or odd that any Asian American would identify so strongly with a saga about pioneers. But then I realized that it was because the stories are similar: immigrants and migrants. Both traveled westward, looking for new homes, new landscapes, new identities. Realizing this led me toward writing Pioneer Girl (though in my mind, the book still retains its original title, Little Gray House in the West).
Mel: I think that there is something many of us go through, pondering our connection to our cultural identity and how it plays out in our lives. Why do you think that with the Little House series—even with all of the questions surrounding Wilder’s depictions of Natives and African Americans—do fans of the series continue to find ourselves returning to it as a way to work through these questions?
Bich: I wonder if it has something to do with reinvention. It’s such an alluring part of the Little House experience: the Ingalls get to reinvent themselves each time they move. They are supposed to be the embodiment of independence. And partly because of this, the books seem so essentially American. In contrast, many of us today are still trying to define our own American experiences. What makes, moves, and drives us? Are we “free and independent”? Do we long to escape? What possibilities are we going to allow ourselves? There’s an element of escapist fantasy within all that reinvention in the Little House books.
Mel: Bonus Question: Your interest also lies in writing about food and cooking. Have you ever tried to make anything in The Little House Cookbook? If so, what did you make and how did it turn out? (I made the ginger molasses cookies and it turned out alright, although not as chewy as I had hoped.)
Bich: Yes! I once made the chicken pie and the apple turnovers, for a Little House-themed dinner. We also had lettuce leaves with vinegar and tomatoes with cream and sugar. The pie was labor-intensive—I never cooked it again!—and I wasn’t sure about the hard-boiled eggs in it, but the dish as a whole was satisfyingly rich. The turnovers were lovely, though I don’t tend to cook with lard. I still love reading all of the food descriptions in the books. They make me want blackbird pie and oyster soup! And I’ve always wanted to try fried apples ‘n’ onions.
Well, it seems that I am just going to have to invite Bich to Toronto so that she and I can cook together so we can take part in some delectable Little House delights.
Thanks, Bich for agreeing to come to the blog to answer my questions.