During the Việt Nam War, tens of thousands of children were born into relationships between American soldiers and Việtnamese women. Tragic circumstances separated most of these Amerasian children from their parents. Many have not found each other again…
In 1969, two sisters from rural Việt Nam leave their parents’ home to find work in Sài Gòn. Caught up in the war that is blazing through their country they, like many other young Việtnamese women, are employed as hostesses in a bar frequented by American GIs. Soon they are forced to accept that their own survival, and that of their family back home, might mean compromising the values they have always held dear. As the fighting moves closer to the city, the elder sister, Trang, begins a romance with a young American helicopter pilot.
Decades later, two men wander the streets and marketplaces of modern Sài Gòn. Phong is a ‘Dust Child’ – the son of a Black American soldier and a Vietnamese woman, abandoned by his mother and ostracized all his life – and is looking for his parents and through them a way out of Việt Nam. Meanwhile war veteran Dan returns with his wife Linda, hoping to ease the PTSD that has plagued him for decades. Neither of them can escape the shadow of decisions made during a time of desperation.
With the same compassion and insight that has made The Mountains Sing a favourite of readers across the world, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai brings to life the interwoven stories of these four unforgettable characters, and asks what it takes to move forward.
NGUYỄN PHAN QUẾ MAI is an award-winning Vietnamese poet and novelist. Born in the Red Delta of Northern Việt Nam, she grew up in the Mekong Delta, Southern Việt Nam. She is a writer and translator who has published eight books of poetry, short stories and non-fiction in Vietnamese. Her debut novel and first book in English, The Mountains Sing, is an international bestseller, runner-up for the 2021 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and winner of the 2021 PEN Oakland/ Josephine Miles Literary Award, the 2020 Lannan Literary Award Fellowship, and others, and has been translated into fifteen languages. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Lancaster University, and her writing has appeared in various publications including the New York Times. Quế Mai was named by Forbes Vietnam as one of the twenty most inspiring women of 2021. Dust Child is inspired by her many years working as a volunteer helping family members unite, and reflects the real-life experiences of Amerasians and their family members. Moving between the Việt Nam war and the present day, DUST CHILD is a powerful and compelling tale of family secrets and hidden heartache nguyenphanquemai.com @nguyen_p_quemai
My thoughts: this is a moving and at times profoundly sad book, chronicling the lives of young Vietnamese women and their children during the years of the war and after. Trang and her younger sister move to the city, hoping to make money to help their parents. Finding work as bar girls, getting American GIs to buy drinks and sometimes their bodies, far from their dreams of a better life.
Trang falls in love with one American but he leaves her pregnant and alone. A story sadly common to many young women like her.
Phong is the child of one such story – abandoned at an orphanage, his life is never easy and as the son of a Black soldier, his appearance marks him out as different. He is lucky in his wife and children, and wants to emigrate to America for a better life for them.
He meets Dan and Linda, Americans on holiday, but with a purpose. Dan was one of those GIs, and he left behind a young woman and their child. He wants to find them and try to make amends. But are they even still alive?
All of the characters have suffered, and some are still suffering, from the after effects of the war. PTSD, poverty, trauma, none of it is easy to bear. But slowly as their stories interweave and the truth begins to reveal itself, they find ways to start to heal, to forgive and move on from the painful past.
Inspired by the author’s work with Amerasians (the children of American GIs and Vietnamese women), this is an important story about love, hope and family.
*I was kindly gifted a copy of this book in exchange for taking part in the blog tour but all opinions remain my own.