Pioneer Girl: A Novel
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“A powerful and wholly original American saga.” —San Francisco Chronicle
Bich Minh Nguyen’s previous books—the acclaimed memoir Stealing Buddha’s Dinner and the American Book Award–winning novel Short Girls—established her talents as a writer of keen cultural observation. In Pioneer Girl, Nguyen entwines the Asian American experience with the escapist pleasures of literature, in a dazzling mystery about the origins of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic Little House on the Prairie.
Lee Lien has long dodged her Vietnamese family’s rigid expectations by immersing herself in books. But now, jobless with a PhD in literature, she is back at home, working in her family’s restaurant under her mother’s hypercritical gaze—until an heirloom from their past sends Lee on a search for clues that may lead back to Wilder herself, transforming strangers’ lives as well as her own.
thought about money, Hieu, and all my brother had claimed. Probably when my mother looked at me she thought of my brother too—his disappearance, my failure to fill his space. We both had reasons to stay away from each other. — I knew that Sam’s leaving me his new phone number, stuck through with that gold pin, was supposed to be a message, some sibling code that we were in this together. Maybe he thought I’d round up the money, call him when it all got figured out. But when I returned to
pin. On its flat surface was etched a little house, and before it along the bar lay a tiny lake, and a spray of grasses and leaves. It sounded just like Rose’s pin, the narrow shape and delicate weight I’d known from helping my mother clean her jewelry. Outside, wildflowers along the road blurred together as my mother accelerated to pass a minivan. She was a faster driver than my grandfather, who liked to point out the semis ahead and keep a watch for police cars. Ong Hai, I said,
turned onto the street. Behind the wheel was Gabe, Sam’s best friend from high school. The three of us—my mother, grandfather, and me—watched Sam carry his belongings to the car, heave them into the trunk, and climb into the passenger seat. He made sure not to look back at the house as Gabe drove off. Since high school Sam had been increasingly remote, cultivating an air of self-possession and his own group of part punk, part slacker, part skater, part pseudo-artist-philosopher types. Still,
ribbons and bows taped to the getaway wedding car. By then, my mother no doubt hoped, Sam would have come to his senses and returned. After all, he knew it was the son’s obligation to care for the older generation. I remembered learning this idiom from friends in college: A daughter is a daughter all her life; a son is a son until he takes a wife. Whoever came up with that wasn’t Vietnamese. It had been nearly two weeks since I’d returned from San Francisco and told my mother and Ong Hai
to be patient. He was certain Sam would return, certain that anything could be mended. As for me, there’d been no communication with my brother since that morning in San Francisco. Not even a text. Some days I felt resigned about the silence—what was there to say? Other days I insisted to myself that he would have to contact me first. When my mother arrived at the restaurant, irritated from arguing with the repair guy, she didn’t look like someone whose business worries had been allayed. And