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 exhibit symptoms of Little House obsession or not, but readers of the Little House series will be appreciative of hints of Nguyen’s own obvious adoration.
I thought it was brilliant that Bailey wrote herself into the book, giving the reader the experience of being a researcher, digging through old correspondence, following desperate leads and finding creative avenues to uncover long-lost details. She really had me turning pages each time her findings led to new unknowns. She quotes correspondence of the main characters at great length, giving characters such as Violet and Charlie real life on the page. I was quite intrigued through the discovery of the first cover-up, which dealt with the death of Haddon, the eldest son and heir. While many details remain unknown, the extreme grief of Henry and Violet and their neglectful treatment of John, were heartbreaking, yet, we still don't know the real story.
By the end, as the answers to the questions became clear and the facts emerged, I just felt rather badly about everyone involved and that a man, no matter how privileged, had spent his life and last moments trying to leave a clean record of his flawed life, and how gleefully I was reading a book whose sole purpose was to undo that work and lay open the moments in his life of which he was most ashamed.
It turns out Judy and I are only meant to be best friends with her on screen and me on the couch. There are funny parts - her random texts to Janet were great and her descriptions of interactions with fans who can't place her and her recommendations for polite things to say to stars when you meet them, even if you don't know why you recognize them made me laugh. Stories of her relationships with her parents, dog, husband and stepkids were cute, her big love for her best friends is evident and her story about Ashton Kutcher and the Harley Davidson is adorable. But for the most part, I found it a little bit empty.
The book was sweet and a light, easy read. Judy makes a joke about reading through her old diaries and realizing that she was a very mature kid who basically stopped maturing at age 13. That seemed to match up pretty well with what I was feeling at that point of the book. This book is meant to be a breezy, fun read, not reveal an epic backstory or major revelations. And as an approachable, pleasant read, it is successful. Take it with you on a plane or on vacation, don't assign it to your book club.
However, I was disappointed to discover at the end how fully we were following Amy, entirely sidelining Bev while her defining decision came to fruition, and never really getting to know enigmatic, relentlessly wealthy, poorly-drawn Sally. I had bought in to the idea that I was following a fully-realized examination of three women all at different stages of life/opportunity/ambition, but instead just discovered the author's obvious bias for the importance of Amy's career change/personal revelation at the expense of all the other characters she introduced.
Kirkus-style summary: Good, not great. HBO's Girls has more realistically-drawn characters and novels like "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" or "The Family Fang" portray more comprehensive sketches of modern women coming back from the brink.