When Americans refer to the Viet Nam War, most are talking about the decade of active military combat that killed more than fifty-eight thousand Americans and an estimated 1.4 million Vietnamese civilians, ending with the fall of Saigon in 1975. To Americans of a certain age, the reference conjures memories of massive anti-war protests, horrifying images of the My Lai massacre and effects of napalm and Agent Orange,  strung-out veterans returning home with PTSD, and mind-bending renderings of the American experience in books such as The Things They Carried and films like Apocalypse Now.

What few here realize is that Viet Nam’s history in the twentieth century was a revolving door of conflict and crisis that began with the colonization of Indochina, as it was then called, by the French in the late 1800s. The fight for independence burst into open hostilities during World War II with the formation of the Viet Minh by Ho Chi Minh, paving the way for the later war with America. The cycle of violence that battered Viet Nam through these decades left a legacy that shadows the nation to this day, and it is this enduring trauma, as well as the humanity required to overcome it, that are the focus of  Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s debut novel The Mountains Sing.

Quế Mai is both a celebrated poet in Viet Nam and an activist who has worked extensively with veterans and war victims. Both wings of her experience elevate this family saga, which opens in 2012 with the introduction of the novel’s primary narrator, Huong, as she sits before the ancestral altar and contemplates her late Grandma Dieu Lan’s portrait. Huong notes the scars on her grandmother’s neck and recalls her admonition to “step away from the currents of life” to gain a fuller view of history. Huong will respond by threading her own memories of childhood during the War Against America together with her grandmother’s chronicle of survival and loss during earlier conflicts. But even now, the echo of war intrudes.

“We’re forbidden to talk about events that relate to past mistakes of the wrongdoing of those in power,” Dieu Lan has told Huong. It’s still dangerous to contradict the official history scripted by Viet Nam’s communist victors, and as a result, “a part of our country’s history has been erased.”

Truth-telling nevertheless is this novel’s mission. By reassembling her family’s traumatic memories, Huong is determined to crack the silence and set the record straight. In the process, she will issue a heart-rending plea for peace and reconciliation.

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The tale of the once-wealthy Tran family begins at their ancestral home in the village of Vinh Phuc during the Japanese occupation of Viet Nam in the 1940s. Until World War II, the village name, which means “Forever Blessed,” seemed perfectly chosen. “During the rice harvest season,” Dieu Lan recalls, “the village road will spread out its golden carpet of straws to welcome you.” The family estate, too, was blessed with blooming fruit trees, a charming garden, and room enough, she tells her granddaughter, to later contain seven households when the property was confiscated by the Viet Minh at the end of the first Indochina War.

Such temporal hitches are purposeful and occur throughout The Mountain Sings. They serve to remind us that history can change in an instant, upending livelihoods, institutions, and beliefs that have taken centuries to evolve. In 1942, one such instant occurs during a routine trip that Dieu Lan makes with her father and brother to deliver a cartload of potatoes to Ha Noi.

The Tran family is aware that they may encounter the Japanese, but this raises no alarm. The Japanese rule through the French, and they’ve levied their own taxes on top of existing colonial duties, but like many across the Pacific Theater, the family believes the pacifying slogan “Asia for the Asians.” The Japanese have not come to fight, they reassure themselves, but to lay the groundwork for Vietnamese independence.

Dieu Lan recalls, “I’d seen with my own eyes how polite Japanese soldiers were.”

The Viet Minh, however, are not so trusting. As the unwitting Trans approach a burning village, they realize too late that an attack by guerrillas has detonated all pretense of solidarity with the occupying forces. Dieu Lan’s father tells her to hide with her brother in the brush by the roadside. In the minutes that follow, a Japanese soldier beheads their father before their eyes.

The chapter that absorbs this shockwave is titled “Getting up and Falling Down Again,” which is an apt description of the pattern that now quickens the plot. Dieu Lan and her brother will rise from their harrowing loss to help their mother endure – but only to face new horrors in the Great Hunger.

Two million Vietnamese died in the Famine of 1945. The Japanese had stripped the land of crops and livestock, forced farmers to grow jute and cotton instead of rice, and confiscated all valuables. Then a drought descended.

Such crises, like war, “have the power to turn graceful and cultured people into monsters.” Those who are monsters to begin with, Quế Mai makes clear, only become more lethal. Such a monster is Wicked Ghost, a tax collector for the French who lashes his wife, whips the poor, and possesses “a meaty face, narrow eyes, and a bald, shiny head” worthy of Simon Legree. When Wicked Ghost discovers Dieu Lan and her mother desperately gathering corn from his secret field to feed their starving children, he turns his whip on them.

But not even famine has the power to suck all goodness from humanity. Throughout this tale of woes, certain acts of kindness are returned with unyielding loyalty. When Dieu Lan wakes in the cornfield to find herself tied up beside her dead mother, a friend of her brother’s named Hai appears out of nowhere. In the past, Dieu Lan’s mother saved Hai’s wife and baby son’s lives, and now he saves Dieu Lan. The cycle of compassion, Quế Mai suggests, is a match for the cycle of violence.

As the dueling cycles continue, however, it’s clear that neither is likely to triumph. The Viet Minh reclaim and redistribute rice supplies from the Japanese and French, and a brief period of prosperity allows the surviving Tran family members to restore their land’s productivity. By 1948 Dieu Lan has five children and a happy marriage, but this is not to last.

During the First Indochina War, which followed Japan’s surrender in WWII, the Viet Minh intensified their campaign for independence. In 1954, after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, Viet Nam was partitioned into the communist North, supported by both Mao’s China and Stalin’s Soviet Union, and the pro-democracy South, endorsed by the West. In one of the episodes that the Party would later attempt to erase, the Communists in the North soon launched a purge of intellectuals and landowners called the Land Reform. Mirroring the simultaneous Chinese Land Reform Movement, Vietnamese peasants were encouraged to denounce the so-called bourgeoisie and seize their property.

The Land Reform strips Dieu Lan of all her post-war gains. Targeted as a “rich land-owner,” she loses her husband, her brother, and eldest son, and must flee the angry mob with nothing but her remaining five children, the youngest a babe at her breast.

The odyssey that follows, as Dieu Lan endeavors to hide from her persecutors and walk the hundreds of miles to protection in Ha Noi, requires impossible sacrifices. Unable to feed or care for her children, she surrenders them to others who can. And though she vows to return for them, her daughter neither believes nor forgives her. “See,” young Ngoc says, “you’re throwing us away. You’re giving us to strangers.”

Years later, Ngoc’s daughter, Huong, will lament, “The turbulent events of our history had not just ripped people apart, they’d imprinted on them a sense of guilt about things over which they had no control.”

Huong comes to this conclusion not only by revisiting her mother and grandmother’s stories, but also through her own recollections of life during and after American bombs rained down on her people. She is left to her grandmother’s care when Ngoc, a doctor, leaves for the Ho Chi Minh Trail intent on finding her missing husband. The last person to see Huong’s father was her Uncle Dat, who brings her a wooden carving in the shape of a legendary bird whose “song can reach to heaven and bring back the souls of the dead.” Huong’s father made this memento for her. The bird is called Son ca, which means The Mountain Sings.

The American War during the 1970s visits upon Huong’s family the full range of battlefield atrocities – from death and dismemberment to rape and Agent Orange. But it is abandonment that seems to carve the deepest emotional wounds. Dieu Lan’s earlier abandonment of her children has set a foundation of instability that makes it possible later for Ngoc to leave her own children, for brother to abandon brother and the family altogether. “I realized that war was monstrous,” Huong reflects. “If it didn’t kill those it touched, it took away a piece of their souls, so they could never be whole again.”

The effect of this cataclysmic nightmare is summed up in one haunting image that greets thirteen-year-old Huong and her Grandma Dieu Lan after they return to Ha Noi from the mountain cave that sheltered them during the final months of American bombardments. They find their house collapsed, rainwater in a nearby bomb crater reflecting the heavens like a “single murky eye.” When Dieu Lan joins their neighbors in filling the crater with rubble and bricks, her granddaughter likens their efforts to “filling the eye from hell with the remains of their homes.” 

The narrative control of this novel ultimately belongs to Huong, who makes it her mission to confront this ungodly landscape by recording her family’s journey with both clarity and compassion “for my uncles, my aunt, and my parents, who were helpless in the fight of brother on brother, and whose war went on, regardless of whether they were alive, or dead.” Only by remembering the whole truth of human experience, she suggests, can we “have faith that we can do better.”

In both scope and spirit, The Mountains Sing inevitably calls up comparisons to classic works of social realism by American authors such as John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath) and Pearl S. Buck (The Good Earth). Huong also gives a nod to the influence of Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose Little House in the Big Woods finds its way into the narrative by way of a Vietnamese professor sent to Russia to study American literature “to see into the minds of American people, to help us defeat their army.”

Instead, the professor’s family hand copied his translation to sell, and Little House ends up teaching Huong that American people loved their families, worked hard to survive, and “enjoyed dancing, music, and storytelling, just like us.” It’s impossible to miss the political significance of Huong’s affection for Little House alongside other “so-called anticommunist books that had been banned.”

Like her protagonist, Quế Mai acknowledges that she was inspired by her own family’s wartime scars. Born in 1973 in a small village in North Viet Nam, Quế Mai migrated with her family to the South at age six. She worked as a street vendor and rice farmer before winning a scholarship to study in Australia. The Mountains Sing is dedicated to her grandmother, who perished in the famine of the 1940s, to her grandfather who lost his life due to the Land Reform movement, and to her uncle, “whose youth the Vietnam War consumed.”

This sweeping saga’s implicit political statement is amplified by the enterprise and resilience of its female protagonists, especially Grandma Dieu Lan. Unable to survive on a teacher’s wages, Dieu Lan defies the Party’s ban against trading. When she barters her gold earrings for goods to sell on the black market, Huong is aghast, reminding her that traders “are leeches living on people’s blood.” Dieu Lan’s son Sang, a Party member, is even more vehement. “I’m leading a campaign to wipe out capitalists, bourgeoisie, and traders.” He repeats this declaration like a mantra, threatening to have his mother arrested. But Sang himself is hungry and underpaid, and he doesn’t refuse the food that Dieu Lan sends to him, courtesy of her industrious capitalism.

Grandma Dieu Lan’s grit and resilience seem almost as boundless as her dedication to her family. She will do anything to save them from the revolving winds of war. Like Viet Nam herself, Dieu Lan will suffer and scar, but she will never give up on her children. As Huong concludes, “Grandma became the tallest mountain herself: always strong, always protecting us.”

Aimee Liu

Aimee’s work includes the new novel Glorious Boy, as well as Flash House, Cloud Mountain, and Face. Her articles have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Ms., Literary Hub, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and other publications. She teaches in Goddard College’s MFA program in creative writing at Port Townsend, WA.

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