I couldn’t resist the pitch for Bich Minh Nguyen’s Pioneer Girl: A Novel, the story of an interesting connection between a Vietnamese immigrant family and Rose Wilder Lane. Fans of Little House on the Prairie, owners of the boxed set (either pale blue like mine or pale yellow if you are a bit younger than I) will be charmed by parts of this book.
I was. I loved the specific details that were recalled from the stories, and remember them like I read them yesterday, not 30 years ago. But it wasn’t quite enough. In fact, the memoir The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie gave me those same feelings, but in a more cohesive unit. This “novel” felt derivative of that.
I put novel in quotes because it really reads like a memoir, from the long ambling passages about life in the Chinese buffet business, to her scholarly research, I kept wondering “How much of this is real?” But because it wasn’t firmly in either camp, I think the work suffered as a whole.
Fans of memoir — as I am — might like it. Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder and/or Rose Wilder Lane will enjoy sharing the pages with a fellow fan. The story about Lee, a Vietnamese doctoral candidate, struggling between family roots and living her own life, is interesting as well. The secondary characters like her mother, brother, and grandfather, are well drawn.
I am hovering between 2 and 3 stars. For me, it was ultimately somewhat unsatisfying and I felt it straddled the genres of fiction and memoir without enough clarification. Even though it is written and sold as fiction, it feels very much like a project memoir, and I felt that discoveries made within the novel should have been clarified at the end. Most historical fiction that I’ve read that deals with real people will clarify what is based on fact or folklore and what is pure speculation.
Are you a fan of immigrant literature or Little House on the Prairie? Or perhaps a fan of Bich Minh Nguyen’s other works? Enter to win by telling me which part of this story interests you more.