Wednesday, June 18, 2014

At the intersection of "oriental" buffets and western homesteads

Lee Lien, uncertain about her identity and future, and faced with an implosion in her Vietnamese family, goes investigating a favorite childhood author, making connections between her own immigrant background and an American cultural icon along the way.

On one level that premise seems a bit trite, but in practice Pioneer Girl gets it right.

I've had this title bookmarked (read: lounging on my Amazon wish list, because capitalism has thoroughly subsumed my life and ambitions as a reader) since Meg reviewed it as an ARC. The blend of fact and fiction makes an interesting premise for a book, and it's done in a really light-handed way. Lee's life and family problems have that touch of reality to them, where things aren't always clearly defined and problems (including research problems) aren't always "solved" in any sort of final way. On the other hand, you have convincing fictional research about real women, positing a secret baby given away for adoption. You learn about the careers of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane (real), the Lien family history (fiction), and the Vietnamese/Asian experience in the Midwest (real), while Lee researches Rose's secret baby given up for adoption (fiction). It's really well blended, where a couple of times I flipped back to read the author's bio just to remind myself that Beth Nguyen is not Lee Lien and therefore it's probably not totally scandalous to be revealing Rose's baby in a novel.

Right, I'd better go study this some more.

In her review, Meg writes "I had some feelings about Rose’s secret child, but I Had Feelings over the improper archival methods." It's true. Lee steals a few things during her research and I had to put the book down at one point, this was so upsetting to me.

There should be warnings on books that feature scholars doing this kind of thing. I was made happy again, however, when one of Lee's friends points out that she's going to have trouble publishing anything based on stolen materials. THANK YOU. It gets glossed over a bit (at the end, Lee's working on an article but it's not clear how she's going to get over the theft problem) but my eternal thanks to the author for acknowledging this. One thing I liked, otherwise, was how realistic Lee's research was: she's drawing plausible conclusions but you can see how thin the evidence is even as you are drawn along with agreeing with her interpretations.

I picked this book up and finished it the same day, which is a testimony to how good it is. It does a great job linking "American" and "non-American" experiences, collapsing those categories along the way: the mobility of immigrants and pioneers, the drama of success and failure along very small margins, the strain these things place on family life, and the difficult expectations created for the next generation.


  1. I love this cover and really want to read the book -- I'm a huge nerd so I love reading about scholars doing research. I AM SHOCKED that the character steals materials. Do you think that happens in real life? Cynical me guesses it must sometimes? But -- but -- but it's so wrong! Surely nobody would do such a thing!

    1. It's so alarming! I think it's well integrated here - the character is emotional and so on, and like I said it's mostly addressed in the story itself. I was sitting there thinking, "what! you can't pay for a scan or a copy like everyone else!"

      I've read about thieves who slice rare prints and maps out of books to sell; I tend to think serious academics wouldn't steal things if only because of the publishing problem, but then again I can imagine it happening. I've worked in archives where you'd have to get lucky and/or seriously clever to sneak something out and in other places where it would be very easy, and people do get personally invested in things... I've heard of museum workers and archivists who get possessive of the collections and squirrel things away at home. Now, putting things back wrong to throw others off - that I would believe happens on the regular.