The surprising source of Bich Minh Nguyen’s enthralling second novel, Pioneer Girl, was her discovery that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter Rose had traveled to Vietnam as a journalist in 1965.
Nguyen (pronounced New-win), whose family fled Vietnam in 1975 when she was 8 months old and settled eventually in Grand Rapids, Michigan, says she “had read the Little House on the Prairie books when I was a kid, and I loved them. And I would reread them as an adult as comfort literature. I identified very strongly with them, which some people would think really strange, because why would an Asian American like Little House on the Prairie? But there’s actually a strong connection in terms of the immigrant/migrant experience of starting over. When I found out about Rose Wilder Lane, I felt this was a connection that was asking me to investigate a little bit more.”
“The real story of our family is never known to us because so much of it happens before us.”
Rose Wilder Lane, as readers of Pioneer Girl—or Wikipedia—will discover, was a prominent journalist and well-regarded novelist in her era. She was a close enough friend to President Herbert Hoover that her voluminous papers are housed at his presidential library in Iowa. And many scholars think that if she did not write the Little House books outright, then it was her editorial hand that gave narrative shape—and popular success—to her mother’s efforts. Three years before she died, she went to Vietnam on assignment from a woman’s magazine to offer a woman’s perspective on the war.
The facts of Rose Wilder Lane’s life—and the secrets that may lie hidden beneath those facts—become a kind of obsession to Lee Lien, the narrator of Pioneer Girl. Unable to find a university teaching job after completing her dissertation on Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence, she returns home to help her domineering mother and sweet-tempered grandfather run the Lotus Leaf Café, a struggling Asian fusion-ish restaurant in a strip mall west of Chicago. The discovery of a possible family connection to Rose Wilder Lane sets Lee on a quest to unlock the secrets—real or imagined—of Rose’s life and resolve some of the mysteries of her own family background.
“Meshing the historical with the fictional was a huge challenge for me,” Nguyen says. “I felt that taking a real-life character and imagining an alternate reality is a huge risk. I wanted to do justice to Rose Wilder Lane’s life. I didn’t want to treat her life as just ‘material’ because she’s a fascinating person and a wonderful writer. At the same time I was interested in the idea of mythmaking and the idea of trying to find one’s story.
“Rose kept so many journals and even copies of the letters she sent to other people because she wanted to be in charge of the trajectory of her story,” Nguyen says. “The narrator of the novel, Lee, is essentially in that same pursuit in her family. She wants to take control of her family’s narrative. But the real story of our family is never known to us because so much of it happens before us. We’re researchers picking up clues, trying to understand our parents and family members who are no longer with us. We’re wondering, guessing and coming to conclusions that may not be 100 percent accurate.”
What is certainly true is that Lee’s family is full of conflict. Lee and her mother clash often. Her brother Sam, the favored son, steals from the family and leaves Chicago for San Francisco, where, it turns out, Rose Wilder Lane lived for some years, and where Sam’s is not the only Asian-American face in the crowd, as he tells his sister when she arrives in pursuit of a resolution to the Rose Wilder Lane mystery.
“I’m really fascinated by conflict in immigrant families,” Nguyen says. “This conflict plays out regardless of ethnic background. If you’re a first-generation immigrant in the United States, your children are going to reject so much of what you represent and what you desire. It’s partly the desire for assimilation and partly trying to find one’s own identity while being stuck between two different cultures.”
“I’m really fascinated by conflict in immigrant families."
Pioneer Girl, which takes its title from the working title of the first book in the Little House series, offers a deeply resonant portrait of contemporary Asian-American immigrant life. But, with, for example, a marvelous riff on the generic Chinese restaurant that exists at the edges of many towns in the Midwest, the novel makes clear that it is exploring a different sort of immigrant experience than we often read about—call it the Middle America Asian-American experience.
“That was probably the most autobiographical part of the novel,” Nguyen says, “wondering why my family decided to stay in the Midwest. When we arrived as refugees, we were resettled in Michigan, and for a long time my family wasn’t particularly happy there, but my father never thought about moving. I always thought that was a fascinating aspect of my dad’s character.”
Nguyen previously touched upon these experiences in her highly praised 2007 memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner. “I think my Asian-American Midwestern experience is marked by alienation—not all the time, but a little bit—and self-consciousness. I don’t regret my upbringing because it was a fascinating way to grow up and there was so much conflict that it gave me material probably for the rest of my life. But because I grew up in this dual culture, I never quite felt at home anywhere.”
Still, until last summer, Nguyen had spent her whole life in the Midwest. In July, she and her husband, writer Porter Shreve (who also has a novel coming out in February), left their teaching positions in the writing program at Purdue University and moved with their children, ages 4 and 2, to the San Francisco Bay Area. Nguyen now teaches fiction and nonfiction writing at the University of San Francisco.
“I’m a Midwesterner. We sort of believe you should grow where you’re planted. So it was hard to leave,” Nguyen says. “It took me and my husband a long time to make this decision. It was such a life-changing decision. But the Bay Area is one of these places where, especially if you’re from the Midwest, you think—wouldn’t that be a dream. We love it here.”