Fran Bauer, A Journey Away From War To New Ground, Haunting Bridge’ Travels Beyond Saigon, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Feb 25, 2020 by Lan Cao, in Monkey Bridge

For most Americans, memories of the war in Vietnam have a nightmarish quality that is better forgotten. To lose a war shakes this country’s deepest beliefs in its own invincibility.

Yet until that scar is healed, author Lan Cao theorizes that Americans will never be able to accept the Asian immigrants in their midst, or the painful reminder they bring. The novel “Monkey Bridge” steps into this difficult terrain and is among the first books to be written from the vantage of a person who was airlifted from Saigon.

For Lan Cao, the memories of war are very personal. She recalls the South Vietnamese soldiers who fought beside U.S. troops but were forced to flee their homeland when America pulled its people out of Saigon in 1975, leaving the country to fall into enemy hands.

Yet this is not a book about military conquests.

Like the span in its title, the book threads its way across the abyss of leaving one culture and taking on another. It is a balancing act, “across the thin pole of bamboo no wider than a grown man’s foot, roped together by vines and roots” that Vietnamese peasants use to cross their raging rivers. “But only the least fainthearted, the most agile would think about using this unsturdy suspension.”

It was on such a bridge that the father of Mai, the main character, first saw her mother, whom he describes as more like an apparition floating with remarkable lightness across the bridge. Mai becomes the only offspring of this unlikely alliance between a young intellectual and the daughter of a tenant farmer who carves artful lions and dragons to adorn his rice fields in the Mekong Delta.

The story unfolds as Mai comes to the United States from Saigon as a 13-year-old. Her mother follows months later but never adapts to the new culture in which she is forced to live.

For Mai, life seems to be going in reverse, as she must become the protector while her mother slips into child-like helplessness following a stroke.

Yet her mother bears the legacy of long ears, much like the Buddha’s, that let her hear beyond time and circumstance. She sees her daughter moving in new directions, relocating her roots. She knows she is losing her child to new and inescapable currents.

So she writes a diary, exposing land mines, explosive unions and the gnarled family secrets at the heart of her anguish. Past mistakes must be repaired before they become her daughter’s karma.

There are haunting moments in this novel that speak the universal language of women who fantasize their future, only to find they’ve married a stranger. Of mothers who cling to daughters as if still in the womb, only to see them grow worlds apart. Of old traditions lost.

Put another way, Mai would wipe away her mother’s scars with creams. But her mother longs to teacher her daughter the worth of learning to live with scars.

In part, “Monkey Bridge” is a mystery leading clue by clue to a startling end. But the tale also is told as a tapestry, weaving strands of Asian lore against the harsh background of a war that defiled the very land which ancestors held sacred.

And as a teenager scrambles to find new ground beneath her now-American feet, there also is the struggle of every immigrant, measuring when to cling to the old and when to grab for the new.