Americans have learned the story of Vietnam through the lens of a war that lasted 10 years, almost double that if you count covert manipulation and air operations. That is a blip in Vietnam’s story. Vietnam’s story is of endurance over many centuries of being torn apart.
In The Mountain Sings, her first novel in English, Nguyen Phan Que Mai takes us back to the French occupation of her grandmother’s girlhood in the 1920s, then to the occupation by the Japanese in her young adulthood. The French would return when the Japanese left, then the Vietnamese would oust the French in 1954, with brutal land reform measures to follow.
Then the Americans would come. And yet the life of the place, the afterlife of its ancestors, its customs, its sayings, its songs and even its landscapes would endure, coming into a peaceful clearing after decades of horror.
The story of the family of Grandma Tran Dieu Lan, her children and grandchildren is of heartbreak over and over, like that of their country. This work of fiction is dedicated to the author’s grandmother, who died in the famine of the mid-40s; to her grandfather, who died during the land reform; and to her uncle, “whose youth the Vietnam War consumed,” she wrote, meaning the American war there.
The book opens in Hanoi in 2012 and is told by Huong, the adoring granddaughter, who seems to channel her grandmother throughout. Nguyen, who was born in 1973 – two years before the last US Marine left Saigon – is a celebrated poet in Vietnam. Her writing is gorgeous and vivid. As you read, you smell the cooking pots and incense around the characters, you run with them, hide with them, feel the searing pain in their bare feet, mourn with them, feel their fury at being attacked and witness the trauma that is etched into their civilian lives as one lash follows another.
But the story is buoyed, too, by the family’s extraordinary resilience. Through the 1940s and into the 1950s, Grandma and her husband build a life as farmers, and they become relatively well off, selling their produce at markets, hiring fellow villagers to work for them. When the land reform comes, this family is vilified for being rich merely because they are not suffering.
The land reform pitted the Vietnamese against each other in a ruthless wave of communist overkill. The Tran family is, after all, a peasant family, but they are threatened with death and have to flee their land. The farm, their hard work and serenity are torn from them, cut up and given to others.
As Grandma runs with her six children, authorities are looking for them, identifying her by the size of her brood. She sloughs each kid as she goes, finding what she believes are safe places, promising to return for them, disguising herself on her harrowing journey to Hanoi.
The family does reunite later, but when the Americans arrive, several of Grandma’s children go off to fight. Huong is a child when her parents and uncles join their countrymen on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and Huong’s only lifeline is her grandmother.
After having endured so much trauma over her lifetime, Grandma embodies the spirit of survival at all cost, hovering over this little girl, hanging onto her as they dive into drainage ditches to avoid bombs, scavenging for food in the ruins of their old farm as the American war comes to their village.
At war’s end, Grandma and Huong wait for their loved ones to return. They wait, and wait, and when hope seems lost, reunions take place, but everyone is deeply changed. This book is so devastating in places as to be unbearable, but then the flow of the writing and the story brings you onto a wave of hope. Then you ride the resilience to the next trough, and so on, until you are nearing the end, wistfully, wishing to stick around longer to witness a good life for the adult Huong.
On the last page, Grandma speaks to her from her ancestral plane: “I’m glad you wrote down what we went through, Guava. I can’t wait to read it.”
THE MOUNTAINS SING
By Nguyen Phan
352 pages; $26.99