In advance of AADL's upcoming event, Laura Ingalls Wilder & Her Place in the World on Monday, 3/23, here is a review of Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen, a beautiful work of fiction that ties into loving Laura Ingalls Wilder, and shares themes that appear in the Little House books and in Laura's own life
Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen is the story of Lee Lien, a first-generation American daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, who spent her childhood reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series in the backseat as her family crisscrossed the Midwest, running one tacky Asian buffet after another. Lee is now grown and in possession of a English Literature Ph.D, but no job offers. In returning to live with her short-tempered mother and goodnatured grandfather, Lee stumbles upon a family heirloom that may prove a connection to Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Lee’s beloved Laura Ingalls Wilder. As she chases down clues to prove her theory, she struggles with the everyday realities of her own family.
Nguyen draws some striking parallels between her story and that of the real life and fictionalized versions of the Ingalls Wilder characters. There’s the “missing pieces” of the Ingalls’ family’s real life that are not depicted in the books, such as the birth and death of a son and a stint as innkeepers in Iowa, which relates to the unknowable things in Lee’s own family history, such as the impact of her grandfather’s Saigon cafe on a traveling American writer, the circumstances of her father’s death, or the true state of her mother’s relationship with a family friend. The fraught relationship between the real life mother and daughter Laura and Rose is mirrored in Lee’s interactions with her own mother. Even Laura’s “itchy foot” desire to move ever westward appears as Lee follows her investigation from Illinois to the California coast.
This is the story of a young woman who must go back in order to go forward and how you never know what you might find between the covers of a book.It’s an excellent read whether you are a Little House lover or not, but readers of the Little House series will be especially appreciative of hints of Nguyen’s own obvious adoration.
Looking for more Laura Ingalls Wilder? Try this list of titles that includes biographies, writers chasing their own Laura obsessions, or books that just capture that young girl/big frontier feel.