In her Pioneer Girl, novelist Bich Minh Nguyen offers us Lee, a protagonist who is both a thief and a literary sleuth. The morally complex detectives of the best mysteries always interest me more than the whodunnit puzzles of the stories' crimes. That is very much the case with Pioneer Girl.
I was left contemplating whether some people commit crimes and keep secrets because they don't believe they deserve anything.
"Maybe everyone felt like an imposter," Lee, a budding literary critic, ponders. "By the time I turned in the prospectus for my dissertation, grad school had become one big ruse that I had backed myself into and couldn't get out of. So I kept on with it, forced my way through the diss as fast as possible, and decided that this was how all academics felt, that everyone slogged through the semesters and lived for summers and sabbaticals."
Immigrants and minorities in America – I am African-American -- share a sense that they can only pretend to be real Americans. In a country that glorifies its past, perhaps all Americans are imposters, our version of our history a ruse.
Which brings me to the Little House books at the center of Nguyen’s novel. As a little girl I loved those books, identified with smart, feisty Laura and marveled at her family's survival against the odds. Nguyen’s Lee also loves the books as a girl, though she grows up to become an expert on Edith Wharton, city mouse to pioneer Laura Ingalls Wilder. And Lee comes to see failure as central to the Little House stories.
Why hadn't I noticed before how much Laura-Rose obsessed over food? Maybe I did subliminally, and that's why to this day I love reading about food in books, including in Nguyen's. Here are Lee and her grandfather perfecting a sandwich recipe for their family's Vietnamese café:
"We turned our focus back to food, our favorite subject, talking about how to layer the ingredients toward a better balance. I took pictures, jotted down some notes. Ong Hai sliced the baguette on the diagonal. I'd buy this every day, I said, after the first bite. He chewed slowly and decided it wasn't bad at all, then told me to eat the rest and decide for sure."
Families are real because of both the facts of our lives and the fictions we create out of love -- and to give us something to, as Nguyen puts it, "fall back on, to turn toward," to keep us going.
Such peaceful, domestic scenes as the sandwich-making passage contrast with more difficult family issues, and with Lee's inner turmoil over identity and fitting in. She is fascinated by the deception of those books she loved as a child. Did Laura write them, or did her daughter Rose? And what of the Hollywood version, the TV show that made the lives of the Ingallses even quainter and folksier than they'd seemed in the books?
On a visit to the Laura Ingalls Wilder House in Mansfield, Missouri, the author’s home in her last years turned into a museum, Lee muses:
"I could have stayed for hours, trying to keep track of all that was real ....'
Laura and her family had several homes before Mansfield. The Ingalls’ restlessness is real, as is that of the fictional Lee and her family of immigrants from Vietnam. It's an American trait.
The very settled Gregory contrasts with Lee. The mystery Lee is pursuing is whether he is descended from a son Rose had in secret and gave up for adoption. It's a possibility that piques Gregory’s curiosity. But determining whether Lee's speculations are true interest him less than Lee herself.
"The truth is what I already do know," Gregory says. The rest "is just background, context."
I was fascinated by Nguyen’s exploration of fact and fiction; history and the way we tell it; personal stories and the way we remember them. Nguyen’s prose is a pleasure. She occasionally displays some of the precious, self-regarding tone of writers who have spent time in MFA programs. But her vivid characters make up for those moments of what I call the Iowa affect. Especially Lee, with whom I identify almost as much as I once did with Laura.