I learned about Bich Minh Nguyen’s Pioneer Girl: A Novel from an Asian American Lit Fans blog post. I didn’t have to read further than two sentences into the synopsis – a newly minted PhD can’t put her credentials to use and moves back in with her mother who runs a restaurant. It’s my story! (Sort of.) I placed a hold at the library for it right away. It is a pretty timely read, too, having been published only in February 2014 and arrived at the library in March.
Pioneer Girl started just as promised introducing Lee Lien, newly returned to her family’s house, unable to get her first job after attaining her PhD in English Literature. Instantly, the never-ending restaurant routine sets in and family life is oppressive. The family has had a string of restaurants in towns near Chicago and their current one is in Franklin, closer to St. Louis than Chicago – sleepy Midwest America.
“I’d seen girls like me before. Sullen daughters, stringy-haired and oily-faced, wearing stained aprons and shuffling around their parents’ restaurants, all hope lost for lives of their own. They were like a modern-day version of the docile spinster daughters who had always terrified me in the books of my childhood.”
Lee’s older brother, Sam, returns after being absent for a year and the family is complete to Lee’s mother’s undisguised delight. But he has a purpose, which is to get the money he believes his mother has been receiving since his father’s death twenty years before from a family friend who is somehow responsible. When he couldn’t get his hands on this money he heard about, he leaves again although Lee – ever thrown into a peace-maker role – urges him to stay for the family.
“He took a moment to answer. ‘If I don’t go now, I might never go.’ I understood that, more than I could admit.”
Lee’s mother is stoic, proud and doted on the son while being hard on Lee and this is revealed in examples throughout the novel. The mother-daughter relationship is stunted. As such, when Sam leaves – as he is eager to constantly do so – it wounds her but she will not speak about it. It deepens her own fear she cannot leave which I definitely felt when I returned to Halifax after a few years in college. The truly sad part hits me when Lee acknowledges the futile hope of her mother in the face of the non-responding son.
“Even after he left and she refused to speak about him, I knew she harbored hope… For me, away in grad school in Wisconsin, one month turned easily into another, and Sam’s being gone didn’t disrupt, really, what I’d already gotten used to. But surely for my mother every unreturned text, every phone call that wasn’t his, must have felt like punishment or revenge.”
In their youth, Sam and Lee were close as siblings with a common history, common workplace in the restaurant and a common “enemy” in their mother.
“We called her a total immigrant, made fun of her accent–whatever got a laugh. We’d sell her out in a second if it would make anyone understand that we, Sam and I, were different.”
But when he started to escape the house and family, it wasn’t known when they would hear from him again. It’s so wild, because that is how I feel with my sister at present. We’ve been held together for years by our family, my angst and issues, even when I was away for five years. But it it getting onto 10 years now and I don’t know where it all stands now. “We aren’t close,” I learned she told our cousin.
“I didn’t know when I would see Sam again, or talk to him, and I didn’t ask. He was already far away. The way we’d talked to each other as siblings, growing up in the same apartments, eating the same sugary cereals, hoping we wouldn’t smell of buffet grease as we rode the bus to school, could not hold.”
Then, there is Lee’s quest. She recently made the connection between her grandfather’s stories of a woman name Rose who frequented his cafe in Vietnam and left behind a pin and the pin described in the Little House on the Prairie books that Almanzo gave to Laura. In trying to determine if she really is holding a piece of Little House history Lee finds evidence that Rose, Laura and Almanzo’s only child, may have given up a son for adoption and the Ingalls Wilder line survives but under a different name.
Nguyen drawls parallels between the pioneers of the nineteenth century, continually pushing westward and never staying anywhere for long with Lee’s immigrant family that has operated more than half a dozen restaurants in suburbs of Illinois. I wondered if the Lien family would have been more rooted if the father had not died when the children were young. There is also a parallel between Rose and Laura Ingalls Wilder and Lee and her mother. The older generation moved around out of necessity for the survival of the family but the younger fled from the nest for independence. Also, Rose and Laura were tied together writing the Little House books yet there were creative differences and disagreements. Lee and her mother (and the rest of the family) are tied together by the restaurant but they badly want to be separate. Rose and Laura and Lee and her mother and I and my mother need each other.
This rings particularly true for me–the east coast of Canada in the 80s was similarly uniformly white like the small towns in Illinois. Lee’s brother ends up in San Francisco and with the connections Lee has and makes to the city, you wonder if she will end up there, too. My “happy ending” was going west and arriving in Vancouver (although I would have been just fine in Toronto which is more populous and diverse and exciting).
“I’d been in San Francisco only once before, visiting when Amy was at Stanford, and had then too been unreasonably surprised by the number of Asian people populating the streets. Though I already knew that would be so, it was still startling to see them moving around in a way that seemed oblivious, like they never had to worry about being stared at.”
I love how Nguyen articulated exactly how I feel as a transplant to a city with a large Chinese population. We’re all Asian-American but our experiences were so different with people like Lee and me keenly aware of fellow Chinese-American and when they are present; meanwhile, San Franciscans and Vancouverites take it for granted the Asian presence around them and would notice if they were absent.
“It was an argument I’d heard all my life, an argument I’d had with myself. Why would anyone in the Midwest, especially a nonwhite person, want to stay there? How could life not be better out West, in California? … Sam too would become one of the Asian Americans who made up more than a quarter of this city, … would inspire a visitor like me to marvel at how many driven, successful, capable Asian lived here, and how happy and easy their lives must be.”
‘”I do like how faraway this place feels,” I said. “You know–California, italicized. The dream and all that. I can see why people feel like they can start over here.”‘
Another aspect that tickles my fancy is how Nguyen/Lee are obsessed with an American classic like Little House, just as I was with Anne of Green Gables series and a lot of other L.M. Montgomery writing. Yet, we never saw ourselves, our ethnicity in those novels. PEI was far removed from foreign workers, I suppose, but the American transcontinental railroad had definitely reached the Midwest. We wanted to be a part of the story and in the case of Lee’s family, there were parts that mirror the Ingalls family in their neverending moving about. So it was satisfying for Lee to play a part in the Ingalls Wilder story that I so wanted it to be a memoir and not a work of fiction.