Published by Viking on February 6, 2014
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.
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Jobless with a PhD, Lee Lien returns home to her Chicago suburb from grad school, only to find herself contending with issues she’s evaded since college. But when her brother disappears, he leaves behind anobject from their mother’s Vietnam past that stirs up a forgotten childhood dream: a gold-leaf brooch, abandoned by an American reporter in Saigon back in 1965, that might be an heirloom belonging to Laura Ingalls Wilder. As Lee explores the tenuous facts of this connection, she unearths more than expected—a trail of clues and enticements that lead her from the dusty stacks of library archives to hilarious prairie life reenactments and ultimately to San Francisco, where her findings will transform strangers’ lives as well as her own.
A dazzling literary mystery about the true origins of a time-tested classic, Pioneer Girl is also the deeply moving tale of a second-generation Vietnamese daughter, the parents she struggles to honor, the missing brother she is expected to bring home—even as her discoveries yield dramatic insights that will free her to live her own life to its full potential.
Lee Lien has just earned her PhD in English, but has no immediate job prospects. Upon returning home, she is forced to face her tenuous family relationships and learn to balance her own aspirations with family responsibilities. As a second-generation Vietnamese-American, this also includes figuring out how to reconcile cultural differences between her and her mother.
When Lee stumbles upon a pin left behind by an American reporter in Saigon during her mother’s childhood, she remembers reading about a pin with its exact description in one of the Little House books. Suspecting that the American reporter from her mother’s past may have been Rose Wilder Lane, Lee embarks on an academic adventure that proves to be far more of a personal journey than she expected.
Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose aren’t exactly the focus of Pioneer Girl; rather, they are the context through which Lee faces her own issues. The relationship between Lee and her mother often mirrors that between Rose and Laura. There is an interesting parallel between the lives of pioneers and immigrants as well.
My only problems with the novel were one random, short-lived and out-of-the-blue romantic scene that felt completely out of place, and a nonchalance toward the main character’s instances of petty theft. There is a sense of ennui throughout the novel, even through the end, but I think it works. Other than that, I thought the novel had a very enjoyable writing style, a cultural perspective that kept me engaged throughout, and characters with complex relationships and motives. Pioneer Girl is a unique spin on the second-generation immigrant coming-of-age story.