Mary K. Feeney, Two Stories of Loss, Love, Assimilation, Hartford Courant
Publicity material for this semi-autobiographical story suggests that this is the first novel by a “Vietnamese-American about the war experience and its aftermath.” That’s a tough fact to verify, but one thing is certain: “Monkey Bridge” is a fine, evocative novel about the assimilation of a young Vietnamese woman and the pain her family endures in the United States and in Vietnam during the war.
The title derives from the spindly footbridges over rivers in Vietnamese villages, made of bamboo, vines and mangrove roots. They’re called monkey bridges because of the awkward method of negotiating them, and they figure as meeting points in the story. But they also refer to the difficulty that Mai Nguyen and her mother, Thanh, have in adjusting to their new home in the United States.
Author Lan Cao tells two stories and skillfully intertwines them. The principal one is of Mai, 13, who leaves Vietnam just before the fall of Saigon in 1975 to live in Farmington with an American friend, whom she calls Uncle Michael, and his wife, Mary. She is later joined in the States by her mother, Thanh.
The other story, of Thanh’s life, is told through a diary, which Mai finds one day buried in a dresser drawer.
At the opening of the novel, Thanh is in an Arlington, Va., hospital, recovering from a stroke. She cries out for her father, Baba Quan, who was to have escaped with her to the United States but never appeared at the agreed-upon meeting spot in the final, dizzying days of the American withdrawal.
Besides coping with a new life, struggling to get into college and nursing her mother back to health, Mai is haunted by the fate of her grandfather, who received citations from the American military for guiding U.S. troops through a Viet Cong minefield. Michael, her adopted uncle, tells Mai of her grandfather’s courage, reinforcing her resolve to find him and bring him to America.
It is through the reminiscences in Thanh’s diary that Mai finally discovers why her grandfather would not emigrate to America. The diary reveals much sadness — about Thanh’s mother and father, her childhood in the rice fields of Ba Xuyen and her marriage as a teenager to a Vietnamese intellectual. The textured, rich writing in the diary — from the details of wedding-night rituals to Thanh’s feeling that her daughter has betrayed her heritage — depicts the cultural past Thanh dearly wants to protect, one that Mai is slowly leaving behind.
Mai’s descriptions of life as a Vietnamese immigrant — and the reversal of roles with her mother as Mai guides her into a new culture — are telling. In Little Saigon, the preoccupation is with reinventing oneself to suit current realities.
“It was the Vietnamese version of the American Dream: a new spin, the Vietnam spin, to the old immigrant faith in the future. Not only could we become anything we wanted to be in America, we could change what we had once been in Vietnam.”
In “Monkey Bridge,” Cao skillfully spans two cultures to illuminate the depth of a family’s losses, long after the end of the Vietnam War.