A Vietnamese Pioneer, Modeled On An American Legend

Pioneer Girl is the story of a young woman whose brother has disappeared. NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with author Bich Minh Nguyen about the novel, and its connection to the writer Laura Ingalls Wilder.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. What might a second generation Vietnamese immigrant have in common with the daughter of pioneer legend Laura Ingalls Wilder? Turns out more than you think. The main character in a new novel, Lee Lien, is under pressure to take over her family restaurant. Much like Rose Wilder, Laura Ingalls Wilder's daughter, she longs to break free of a family legacy and forge her own path in this country. In the novel "Pioneer Girl," writer Bich Minh Nguyen weaves together the stories of these two women in unexpected ways.

BICH MINH NGUYEN: Lee is feeling stuck in her life. She is very much torn between wanting to find her own path and wanting to be loyal to her mother. And that is sort of parallel to the experience that Rose Wilder had when she was growing up and making her own way as an adult. She and her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, had a very strong bond - very strong relationship - but at the same time they lived opposite lives. Laura was, she lived on a farm her whole life and Rose did not. She wanted to be, you know, a career woman, which she was. And so they had very different lives and sometimes a very tumultuous relationship.

MARTIN: Can you talk a little bit more about the relationship that Lee has with her mom? What are the specific pressures that her mom is putting on her and how does Lee respond?

NGUYEN: Lee's mother has always run a series of buffet restaurants. And this is a lifestyle that Lee does not want to participate in. She wants to be a scholar, which her mother does not think is particularly worthwhile. And one of the problems that they clash over is the investigation of family history. Lee's mother kind of thinks that everything should just be left alone and there's no use in thinking about the past or trying to analyze it. And that's completely opposite of what Lee wants to do with her life.

MARTIN: This is a novel but it is based in part on your own biography. Can you talk a little bit about your own relationship with these books by Laura Ingalls Wilder? When did you first encounter them?

NGUYEN: This novel grew out of my obsession...

(LAUGHTER)

NGUYEN: ...with "Little House on the Prairie."

MARTIN: It's a big word.

NGUYEN: I grew up reading them and was immediately captivated by the narrative dramas, which are big and small. You know, the threat of starvation, plagues and locusts, but everyday dramas as well, you know; how to get even with your enemy on the playground, things like that. And the way to get even is to lure her into a river so that she gets covered with leeches.

MARTIN: Are we talking about Nelly?

NGUYEN: Nelly Olson, yes. But I was obsessed with these books and obsessed with the way they depicted family and food. And it wasn't until I was an adult rereading the books that I realized that probably why I was so interested in the books is because the Ingalls are pioneers in the mid-to-late 1800s moving westward, searching for a new home. And my own family had come from Vietnam in 1975. And our experience as immigrants, you know, moving to the West and searching for a new home was parallel to the Ingalls' experience as pioneers.

MARTIN: So, the tension of wanting to find your own path, is that something that you felt personally as well? Is that part of the autobiography in this story?

NGUYEN: I think I was trying to get at a generational conflict that always exists between a first and second generation in any immigrant household. That tension is there. The first generation does so much work in establishing the basics of life. And they are all about surviving and making due. And the second generation gets to take all that for granted. And as a result, there is tension between wanting to have a tie to the first generation's closeness with the original country and the second generation's desire to explore a new identity in the United States.

MARTIN: Do you still have your Laura Ingalls Wilder books?

NGUYEN: Absolutely. They are tattered and torn and I have basically memorized them.

MARTIN: Do you have a favorite - I'm going to call you out on that - do you have a favorite story or character or moment? I'm sure there are many. But is there one that comes to mind now, something that has stayed with you?

NGUYEN: Oh, so many. One of my favorite books is "The Long Winter," which is probably appropriate right now because most of the United States is going through...

MARTIN: A long winter.

NGUYEN: ...a long winter, months and months of relentless blizzards. And I love that book because it is all about hardship. And the townspeople and the family, they are literally struggling to survive. And I love the scenes in which they are all huddled together by the little woodstove and all they have is each other. And maybe, you know, a little bit of tea or they have some baked beans. And they have to find comfort in the barest kind of way. And so that sounds so dark and cold, but to me it's very comforting that in the midst of such deprivation and such hardship, you could find comfort in your family and just a little bit of hot tea.

MARTIN: Bich Minh Nguyen. Her new novel is called "Pioneer Girl." She joined us from KQED in San Francisco. Bich, thanks so much for talking with us.

NGUYEN: Thank you.

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