Every unhappy family, Tolstoy tells us in the first line of "Anna Karenina," is unhappy in its own way. Maybe so. But as Bich Minh Nguyen suggests in her new novel "Pioneer Girl," set in the western suburbs of Chicago, certain kinds of unhappiness within families can seem awfully consistent in wildly disparate times, places and cultural backgrounds.
"Pioneer Girl" is the story of Lee, a young woman who, with her career in academia stalled, is forced to move back in with her strict mother and gentle grandfather, who immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in the mid-1970s. Long fascinated by Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House on the Prairie" books about pioneer life in the late 19th century, Lee comes to suspect that a gold-leaf brooch left by an American woman at her grandfather's cafe in Saigon actually belonged to Rose Wilder, the author's daughter. To investigate her theory, Lee embarks on a journey of discovery that takes her to San Francisco, where she realizes that the Wilder family's history and that of her own are connected, and reflect each other, in more ways than one.
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The pioneer experience and the immigrant experience in America turn out to have plenty in common, including the effect of economic hardship on human character and family relationships. They also share a toughness and resilience that come to those forced to make new lives, new homes and sometimes new identities for themselves far from their native lands.
Printers Row Journal caught up with Nguyen, who goes by Beth, in Berkeley, Calif., where she lives with her husband, novelist Porter Shreve, and their two children. Nguyen, 39, and Shreve — whose new novel, "The End of the Book," is also set in Chicago — lived in the Windy City for five years before moving to the Bay Area in 2012. She now teaches literature and creative writing at the University of San Francisco. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: Why did you set "Pioneer Girl" in the Chicago area?
A: Well, I grew up in the Midwest, and it was important for me to have the main character, Lee, be a Midwesterner. I chose the Chicago area because it's a place where there's a lot of opportunity for immigrants and children of immigrants. I wanted them to be a family that's always looking for opportunity, moving around various suburbs on the outskirts of Chicago. I always wanted to live in Chicago, you know, long before I actually did. In Grand Rapids, Mich., where I grew up, Chicago was sort of a dream place for everybody. Just like people on the East Coast growing up wanting to live in New York, people from where I grew up want to live in Chicago. It's the place everyone wants to go.
Q: Growing up in Michigan, I take it you read the "Little House on the Prairie" books by Laura Ingalls Wilder?
A: Yes, I read them the first time when I was about 8 years old. I just loved them immediately, because they're so dramatic, and yet they appeal on an everyday level. The protagonist is a young girl trying to figure out where they're going to live and how they're going to get there, but also dealing with the everyday struggles — what to wear, how to make friends, all those things. So I read those books early on and have been re-reading them ever since. Interestingly, immigrants and their children in the United States are often introduced to those books early on. They're pretty widely read among that group.
Q: Is there something about the books that appeals to immigrants in particular?
A: I think so. It has to do with the western migration that occurs in the "Little House" books, which has a lot of parallels to the immigrant experience — the idea of starting over, moving somewhere that's completely unknown, having to create a new life from scratch, over and over. That's what the Ingalls family did, and that's what immigrant families do.
Q: Your parents emigrated from Vietnam, I take it.
A: Yes, in 1975, right before the fall of Saigon.
Q: And like Lee, were you born in the U.S.?
A: I was actually born in Vietnam; they left for the U.S. when I was 8 months old. Of course I have no memory of that. I grew up as an American child.
Q: One of the big themes in "Pioneer Girl" has to do with Vietnamese immigrants' children, who grew up "American" yet still have to deal with the cultural expectations of their parents. At one point in the book, Lee describes the fact that the family doesn't really talk about important or contentious or distressing things, which she says is "very Vietnamese."
A: In my experience and in my observation of Vietnamese families, conversation doesn't flow in as open and confessional a way as it tends to in "American" families. Part of the reason is that in Vietnamese families there's an understanding of respect — a respect for one's elders — and that affects the level of conversation a lot. It would be pretty big breach in a Vietnamese family for a child to be rude or disrespectful to her parents — as opposed to an "American" family, where the kids can say anything they want to their parents, engage in arguments and so on. I wanted Lee, the protagonist, to be sort of in the middle. She's so American, but she feels she's caught up in the expectations of her mother, who's from a different place and time period.
Q: When she's around her mother, in fact, Lee behaves pretty much as if they were still living in Vietnam, really.
A: Right. The generational conflict is always there, always marking every interaction. Lee wants to honor her mother's expectations, but she also wants to be her own person. So there's conflict in almost every conversation they have.
Q: On the other hand, Lee's brother, Sam, is considerably freer within the family, mainly because he's the son. As a man, he gets cut a lot more slack. Did you grow up with siblings?
A: Yes, I have two sisters and a brother.
Q: And was your brother able to get away with a lot more than you and your sisters could?
A: Oh sure. (Laughs.) Although I'm not exactly sure if that was because he was a boy or because he was the youngest. By the time my parents had him, they were completely exhausted, so it was like, "Whatever." (Laughs.) But Sam clearly has a lot more space to do what he likes, to go where he wants, to make mistakes. That's typical in a lot of Vietnamese households.
Q: Are you traditionally "Vietnamese" with your own children, or more "American"?
A: The funny thing is, my parents weren't very traditional. I was mostly raised by my father, my Vietnamese grandmother, and my stepmother, who's Mexican-American. We were a very multicultural family. But I knew people who were from traditional Vietnamese families, and their parents were very different. I'm not sure what it means to be a "Vietnamese mother" anymore, but I'm pretty sure I'm not whatever that is. (Laughs.) The parent-child relationship depicted in "Pioneer Girl" is not something I would wish to enact myself. (Laughs.)
Q: Another big part of "Pioneer Girl" is a storyline involving Rose Wilder, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who went to Vietnam as a reporter in 1965 and, in your novel, may have met Lee's grandfather at his restaurant. Wilder leaves a decorative pin there, and eventually Lee comes into possession of it. Ultimately she begins an investigation into the pin's history, which takes her to San Francisco, where her brother is living. Is there any basis in fact for that part of the book?
A: The true part is that Rose Wilder did go to Saigon and spent time there in 1965 as a reporter. The pin itself appears in one of the "Little House" books, but what I make of it in "Pioneer Girl" is all imaginary. It becomes what connects Rose Wilder's family with Lee's family.
Q: Had it always been that you wanted to write something about Laura Ingalls Wilder, or did that come up more recently?
A: I'd thought about her a lot over the years, and I'd written about "Little House on the Prairie" in nonfiction. But the idea of using her as part of a fictional story didn't cross my mind until I learned that Rose Wilder had gone to Vietnam. And when I started doing more research on her, it occurred to me that I'd been looking for a way to connect these stories that had seemed completely separate — the stories of the American pioneers in the late 1800s and the stories of immigrant families.
Q: Of course, even if you've never read the books, "Little House on the Prairie" is familiar to a lot of people from the TV adaptation that starred Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert in the 1970s.
A: Yes, I used to watch the show with my grandmother, who thought it was really funny. She thought Michael Landon was hilarious, I think, because of the way he dressed on the show. He was always exposing his chest. (Laughs.) My grandmother was like, "He would never have dressed like that in real life!"
Q: He would have worn his shirt buttoned up to the neck.
A: Right. And he was crying all the time. My grandmother was like, "Why's he crying? Everything that happens, he cries!" (Laughs.)
Q: But of course the books were quite a bit different from the TV series. The books were darker in some ways.
A: That's true, and in fact there were a lot of things that happened in Laura Ingalls Wilder's real life that were only hinted at in the books — the conflicts, the bad decisions and so forth. There's a deep sadness that runs through all the books. It wasn't an easy, happy life, and it took a long time for Laura Ingalls Wilder to have any kind of financial security. That didn't happen until the "Little House" books were published, when she was in her 60s. She had a lot of hardship in her life, and it affected her personality a lot. Her daughter, Rose, wrote about that in her diaries — the psychological effects of hardship and deprivation.
Q: Which many immigrant families can relate to, as we see in the character of Lee's mother in "Pioneer Girl." She's a difficult woman in many ways, but it comes out of how difficult life has been for her.
A: Absolutely. First-generation immigrants have to do so much work — setting up a new life, learning a new language, getting everything done. And then the second generation can take all of that for granted.
Q: The second generation can go off to college and write novels, for example.
A: That's exactly right! (Laughs.)
Q: You're the lucky one.
A: Don't I know it.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Twitter: @KevinNance1.
By Bich Minh Nguyen, Viking, 304 pages, $26.95