Pioneer Girl: A Novel
by Bich Minh Nguyen

Viking, 2014. ISBN 978-0-670-02509-1.
Reviewed by B. Lynn Goodwin
Posted on 02/19/2015

Fiction: Multicultural; Fiction: Mainstream

A young girl with an Asian face, dark braids, red high tops, and a dress like the one Melissa Gilbert wore on "Little House on the Prairie," is on the cover of Pioneer Girl. She looks worried. Where is the overlap between these two stories? As a Laura Ingalls Wilder and a Rose Wilder Lane fan, I had to find out.

Bich Minh Nguyen's Pioneer Girl is the story of a fictitious woman with a Ph.D. in literature and no job prospects, Lee Lien, who returns to her family home in the Midwest. She doesn't want to help out in the family restaurant but it's expected in Vietnamese culture.

When her "perfect" older brother, Sam, moves away, stealing his mother's jewelry because he believes she owes him money, he leaves behind one piece: a gold-leaf brooch abandoned by an American reporter named Rose at the old family restaurant in Saigon back in 1965. Could that Rose have been Rose Wilder Lane, on assignment for Woman's Day? Could the brooch be one that her father, Almanzo Wilder, gives Laura Ingalls for Christmas the year they become engaged?

As Lee explores this tenuous connection, she falls into her professional researcher mode, showing us just how much she would contribute as an assistant professor, if any university would offer her a job. She travels to Iowa City, to Rocky Ridge, MO, and to San Francisco, all places that Laura and Rose lived, looking for something that will tie the brooch to Laura Ingalls Wilder. In San Francisco, she finds an Asian community more to her liking, and begins to understand her brother a bit better.

This Vietnamese family, who fled from Saigon at the end of the war, faces restlessness, poor business decisions, and a mother-daughter power struggle that is a fight to the finish. No wonder Lee was drawn to the Little House books as a girl. The Ingalls family faced similar problems, but dealt with them beautifully in the carefully edited stories of Laura's life. As a child Lee saw models of how others dealt with these issues, without drama or immigrant guilt.

Pioneer Girl is about the origins of the Little House series as discovered (or rediscovered) through the eyes and experience of a Vietnamese immigrant who achieves her dream, a Ph.D., only to find herself working in the family business. Like Rose, she's surrounded by ironies and injustice and cannot wait to escape. Like Rose, she is a skilled writer seeking her own path. Like Rose, she has family issues to work out.

Nguyen finds similarities between the two families in every chapter. She honors the world of academia and the world of the Lotus Leaf, the Lien's family restaurant. Most of all, she honors Lee Lien's search for her place in the world, which is the same search that Charles Ingalls and his descendants went through. Pioneer Girl is an exciting detour around the usual route to finding one's identity.

Bich Minh Nguyen, who often goes by the name Beth, is the award-winning author of three books, all with Viking Penguin. She received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan and has taught fiction and creative nonfiction in the MFA Program at Purdue University and the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco. Visit her website.

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