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Authors: Bich Minh Nguyen

Pioneer Girl

BOOK: Pioneer Girl
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Published by the Penguin Group

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First published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Bich Minh Nguyen

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.


Nguyen, Bich Minh.

Pioneer girl : a novel / Bich Minh Nguyen.

pages cm

ISBN 978-0-698-15137-6

1. Vietnamese Americans—Fiction. 2. Immigrants—Fiction. 3. Women Journalist—Vietnam—Fiction. 4. Bracelets—Fiction. 5. Vietnam War, 1961–1975—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3614.G84P56 2013

813'.6—dc23 2013018403

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


For Po, Henry, and Julian




























n August 1965 a woman named Rose walked into my grandfather's café in Saigon. That much is known. My grandfather would say that's the beginning of this story. My mother would say I should have left it at that.

Back then, my mother and grandfather lived in the rooms above the café. She was twelve, an only child whose own mother had died the year before. In the evenings my grandfather taught her English from a friend's borrowed textbook. He had a feeling, he used to say, that it was the language of the future. On that day when an American woman sat down at one of his teak tables, looked around at the blue-trimmed doorways and the ceiling fans that had paddles shaped like gingko leaves, he took it as a sign. She asked for coffee or tea, whichever was freshest, and he brought her a cup of French roast with condensed milk and half a baguette, using his most careful pronunciation to ask if she needed any kind of help. It was monsoon season, the part of the year when heat and steam were the same, unrelenting. The traffic of bicycles and mopeds and pedicabs crisscrossed the windows, and the woman seemed glad to be free of it. There weren't many American women in Vietnam, and she didn't seem like a nurse or aid worker. She was old, surprisingly so, hair a silver sweep beneath a straw hat.

Oh, I don't need help, she said. I need conversation.

She was a reporter, on assignment for a magazine that wanted her to write about the war in Vietnam from a woman's point of view. She was supposed to spend a month getting a sense of the country, the people, the culture, and distill it all into an article. My grandfather, always interested in other people's stories, sat and talked with her, while my mother watched from the kitchen. I have imagined the languorous way Rose might have sat, the way her dress folded around her, making her seem protected, somehow, as if she knew the war would not touch her.

Rose stopped by the café often during her week in Saigon, and though she and my grandfather talked for hours, he remembered little about her history. If Rose revealed her full name, if she spoke about her own mother and father, or anything about the roots of her family, he didn't remember. He recalled, instead, her lively voice, her many questions about Vietnam; he remembered her largeness, how she always wore a hat. In anticipation of her visits, he reserved pineapple and lychees for her. He offered her delicacies usually eaten on holidays—sticky rice buns stuffed with sweet sausage, candied ginger snacks, curls of dried coconut. She ate them heartily. He gave her advice about lodgings in Da Lat and Hue and, whenever she bade farewell, he helped her cross the street. One day, when Rose complained of a cramp in her leg, he had my mother run out to fetch some balm that Rose later said cured her instantly.
You are lovely
, my mother remembered Rose saying.
The loveliest little family.

Ten years later, when my mother and grandfather fled Saigon for America, one of the few things they took with them was a small gold pin, engraved with a picture of a house, that had belonged to Rose. She had dropped it, perhaps, forgotten it. Left it sitting on the table where a plate would be. They had kept the pin safe, but Rose never came back.

When I was growing up my grandfather liked to tell these stories about Rose. Once in a while my mother joined in too.
That big white lady with a purse and a notebook
, she would say.
All by herself, in Saigon, in a war.
Her voice would take on a kind of tenderness, wonder, that I rarely heard otherwise.

We would usually be packed in the car when they got to remembering like this, but I didn't pay much attention until the time we moved from a town in southern Wisconsin to a town in central Illinois. I was eight years old and book-crazy, could read for stretches in the car without getting sick, while my brother, Sam, listened to the same music on his Discman over and over. Even then, at age nine, he had the ability to close himself down to everyone around him. That year, my obsession was the
Little House on the Prairie
box set my grandfather had given me for my birthday. As we drove toward our new town I imagined every farm we passed was Laura Ingalls Wilder's and that I could see her, calico-bonneted, walking in wheat. I'd been following her, book to book, from childhood to adulthood when, one Christmas, her new fiancé Almanzo gave her a present.

There in a nest of white cotton lay a gold bar pin. On its flat surface was etched a little house, and before it along the bar lay a tiny lake, and a spray of grasses and leaves.

It sounded just like Rose's pin, the narrow shape and delicate weight I'd known from helping my mother clean her jewelry.

Outside, wildflowers along the road blurred together as my mother accelerated to pass a minivan. She was a faster driver than my grandfather, who liked to point out the semis ahead and keep a watch for police cars.

Ong Hai, I said, which was what we all called him. Listen to this. I read the description aloud.

How funny, he said. Isn't that funny?

You read too much, my mother said to me.

I say Rose's pin was a gift too, my grandfather went on. Even if by accident. Can't refuse something like that.

My mother said nothing more, but I figured it must have meant the same for her. Why else would they have kept the pin, brought it to America?

We drove on, all of us confined together in the old Mercury. We were, if nothing else, accounted for and heading in the same direction. A new restaurant. A new town. A new apartment. My mother and grandfather would take turns behind the wheel, fiddling with the temperature controls. The urn that carried my father's ashes rode up front with them. In the back, Sam and I stared out the windows at the electric wires leading us deeper into the big Midwest that was the only landscape we knew.

I decided to pretend that the two pins were the same, that Almanzo's gift to Laura was not just based on a true story, but a real treasure now hidden away in my mother's jewelry box. In books, characters were always keeping secrets. This would be one of mine. I didn't know it would stay that way for years, waiting to be brought out into the light.

I went back to my books. My mother gripped the steering wheel; my grandfather searched the radio for weather and news. Sam leaned against his door, eyes closed, arms tucked beneath the marled blanket our mother had knitted the previous winter. Outside, the afternoon had long given in to clouds. We drove on, together, toward our next new home.


always thought when I left my mother's house there'd be no looking back. That the restaurant life my family had followed for so long would not figure into mine. If there was one thing Sam and I had always agreed on, it was that. In college I'd majored in English, then kept on for a PhD that my mother called a waste, meaningless compared to dentistry, engineering, or at the very least, accounting. So when I had to move back to Franklin after grad school, nowhere else to go, I said it was because I'd lost the lease on my apartment in Madison. I wasn't about to admit that I'd struck out on the academic job market.

My mother put me to work right away at the coffee-slash-noodle shop that she owned with Ong Hai. Within days I was fixing summer rolls, chopping up onions and herbs, learning how to blend dark-roast coffee and condensed milk into a perfect cafe sua. At first there was something soothing about the routine, the symmetry of a shrimp sliced lengthwise onto a bed of rice noodles. But soon the panic crept in. I'd seen girls like me before. Sullen daughters, stringy-haired and oily-faced, wearing stained aprons and shuffling around their parents' restaurants, all hope lost for lives of their own. They were like a modern-day version of the docile spinster daughters who had always terrified me in the books of my childhood.

Then there was the name of the café: the Lotus Leaf. When I said out loud that it sounded excessively exotic, my mother told me that proved I had no sense. Too much education for my own good.
We been running this place two years and everyone else likes it just fine.
Ong Hai's Vietnamese coffees and lunchtime pho had generated good reviews on Yelp and a small mention in the suburb section of the
Chicago Reader
. But I knew that business was thinning and that he was worried. I told myself that these were matters that Sam was supposed to inherit—my mother had taken on the café in the first place for him. But Sam had flouted all of us by leaving, dropping out of contact two Christmases before. They'd argued, that much I knew, though I never learned about what.

So when, three weeks after my own return, Sam called my phone and hung up without leaving a message, my mother cleaned the whole house down to the window blinds. I told her the missed call was probably a mistake but she believed it meant he was coming home.

It turned out she was right.

A couple of days after the phone call I left the café early, taking a long route back to the rental house my mother and Ong Hai had claimed as home. The space between their neighborhood and the Lotus Leaf was a soul-numbing continuum of chain restaurants and local efforts with names like Itemz and If It's Baskets. You wouldn't even know Chicago was less than twenty miles to the east.

I wanted to forget about the long summer, or more, that stretched ahead of me. My brother was far from my mind.

So when I saw him on the cement stoop I wondered, for half a second, if he was the ghost—sounds crazy to say now—of our father. A spirit in the way of Vietnamese belief. And then I realized I was thinking the way my mother probably would. And then I realized that she was right, that Sam's call had been a signal. A long time later, I would understand that the signal wasn't for her but for me.

In a burst of fury, my mother had changed all the locks after Sam left. So he was just sitting there, hanging around waiting for someone to open the door. I parked in front of the black SUV that must have been his and as I walked toward him I wondered who would speak first. What were you supposed to say to someone who had reappeared after more than a year of silence?

Sam cast his gaze around me as if checking out the neighborhood. In warm weather, the old couple across the street liked to set up lawn chairs just inside their open garage, where they would wait for their grandkids to come visit and wave to anyone who happened to walk by. Their chairs were empty at the moment but two drink cozies were sitting on the garage floor.

A city bus stopped at the corner, exhaled, then heaved its way onward again.

“How long have you been here?” I finally said.

Sam shrugged at the question. He had started doing that in high school—a practiced, careless shrug, full of dismissal, hinting at derision. He looked older, just as thin, but more gaunt in the face, as if his skin were doing extra work to pull itself around his fine features.

“I need your help with something,” he said.

As we walked into the house Sam glanced at the corner of the living room where our mother kept the shrine to the dead: our father's urn, a small statue of Buddha, candles, incense, a plate of fruit, and a photograph from the eighties, turning sepia-toned in the glass frame. Our father was perpetually starting to smile. He was outside somewhere, blue sky and stilled clouds behind him.

Instead of heading to the kitchen, where I always went first, Sam went down the narrow hall to our mother's room.

“Hey,” I said, following. “What are you doing?”

He opened her closet and started checking pockets, the insides of shoes, the insides of shoe boxes. She had a few old purses lined up and he looked in those too.

“Where do you think she keeps it?” he asked.

“Keeps what?”

“The money. Jesus.”

I was so surprised I laughed a little. “Seriously?” When he didn't reply, I said, “Sam. What money?”

Finished with the closet, he went over to the old mahogany dresser that our mother had gotten for twenty bucks at a garage sale because it had a cloudy water stain on its top. I didn't stop him. Maybe a part of me was curious too if he would find anything.

He was messing up her clothes, I told him. And besides, was he really going to look through her underwear and bras?

He hesitated, then shut the top drawer. “I'm talking about Hieu's money.” Hieu. It was a name I hadn't heard in a long time. He and our father had been best friends back when we lived in La Porte, Indiana, where I'd been born. They had talked about starting a restaurant together. Later Hieu had moved with us to Battle Creek, then back to La Porte. He had persuaded my father to go on a weekend trip with him, up to Michigan to fish the St. Joseph River, where my father had drowned.

When I told Sam I didn't know what he was talking about he studied my face for a moment, deciding whether or not to believe me. Then he said, “Hieu gives her money. She's been guilting him into it for years, ever since Dad died. I thought I was the only one who hadn't known.”

My immediate reaction was distance. “That's ridiculous,” I said. “Are you on something?”

He turned to the bed, lifted up the top mattress, and stuck an arm in there, looking for holes in the box spring.

“If you don't know about that, then I guess you don't know about the money that's yours. Or was yours.”

I didn't want to know what he was going to say next, already disbelieving him. At the same time, I thought:
Of course
. Of course my mother would have done this, whatever this was—the crazier the better. “All right,” I said. I straightened the bedspread. “Tell me.”

He said that years back, Hieu had set up accounts for us, to help pay for college. Our mother had taken the money instead and used it to open the Lotus Leaf. “Last year, I followed her and saw her with him. Then she saw me. You can imagine how she reacted. I confronted her about it and told her I wanted my share of the money. She said that
wanted the money to go to the café.”

“No,” I said, too stunned to say anything else.

“Didn't think so.”

“What makes you think he's still giving her money?”

“You don't need a fucking PhD to figure things out. The guy is loaded. He drives a Mercedes. I asked Ong Hai about it and he didn't deny it. He wouldn't talk about it, but he didn't deny it.”

I watched Sam go back to the dresser, open the middle drawer, and pat down the sweaters and shirts. “What's wrong with you?” he said. “Aren't you pissed?”

“This is what you guys argued about last year, then. At Christmas.”

“Yeah, remember what a fun holiday that was? A couple of days before you got here I found out her secret. That money is blood money, Lee. It belongs to me, or you, just as much.”

“It's not blood money. Don't be so melodramatic.”

“Dad would never have gone fishing if Hieu hadn't made him.”

We'd never talked like this before, broken into plain speech about our father. Sam's words echoed thoughts I'd had thousands of times. But still I said, “It was an accident.”

“The money is no accident.”

“What makes you think she'd even keep any of it here? She's not an idiot.”

“You know how old-school she can be.”

The bottom dresser drawer held my mother's winter scarves, a couple of old Vietnamese magazines, some Christmas gifts she'd never used: a bottle of Calvin Klein Eternity, still in its packaging, an empty leather photo frame, a Mylar space blanket.

“Look at all this crap,” Sam said. He touched the blanket, which was supposed to be one of those emergency items to keep in the trunk of a car. Ong Hai had bought it at a kiosk at the mall.

Sam eyed our mother's ballerina jewelry box, which no longer had a ballerina and no longer played music. In it she kept the four gold and jade necklaces that had been her grandmother's, the jade bracelet I'd been made to wear as a toddler, and the double-strand gold chain bracelet my mother used to wear before deciding it got in the way of work. And the little gold piece, engraved with a faint image of a house, that the American woman, Rose, had left in Ong Hai's café in Saigon. I hadn't seen the jewelry in years, not since high school. As far as I knew, my mother never had occasions for dressing up.

I picked up Rose's pin. “Remember this?”

“Not that stupid story again.”

“It was a big deal to them.”

“Their first white American customer. Wowee.”

“I'm pretty sure it was more than that.” Not that I could have explained what. I almost started telling him how, as a kid, I'd imagined the pin to be an heirloom from Laura Ingalls Wilder. But it seemed silly, a faraway thought, so I put the pin back with the rest of the jewelry, closed the box, closed the drawer.

Sam stood up, glancing around the room once more. I fixed the wrinkles in my mother's nubbly yellow comforter. She always made her bed: the slight hill of one flat pillow, the sheets tucked tight. She had no patience for decoration, and the room showed it. Nothing had ever hung on the putty-colored walls, here or anywhere else she'd lived.

“You know Ong Hai would give you money, if he has it. Or just ask Mom. She went nuts cleaning this whole place after you called.”

“Whatever I found wouldn't be stealing. It would be my money too. Hell, it'd be yours too.”

“They're going to be home any minute.”

At that, he seemed to waver. I wondered if he was thinking of escaping to his car and driving away, so I said, “Come on. Let's get something to eat and you can figure out the money later.”

He relented, but I knew he was far from done with the pursuit.

In the kitchen, Sam helped himself to one of Ong Hai's Corona beers. The fridge was crammed as always, plastic-wrapped bowls and plates balanced on each other. Like me, my mother and grandfather had this compulsion to hang on to even the smallest amount of leftovers. Then we'd forget how long something had been there.

Sam said again, “How is it you're not pissed?”

,” I said, though I sounded calm, felt it, even. There wasn't much I'd put past my mother.

“She mentioned that you'd moved back.” Sam said that easily, conversationally, like he hadn't just been scouring her room for money.

I didn't know they'd communicated at all since that day he had stormed out, over a year ago.

Sam must have read as much on my face. “She sends me these texts,” he said. “Every once in a while.”

“Do you reply?”

The answer was no, of course. He didn't reply. Just let her keep texting into the void.

“So why'd you move back?” he asked.

I gave him my standard lie—in between semesters, waiting to see where I'd end up in the fall.

“Does that mean you're staying here?”

“Are you?”

I'd been away in Urbana, in my last year of undergrad, when my mother and Ong Hai and Sam moved into this rental house. Sam had halfheartedly enrolled in a few classes at the nearby community college but soon dropped out. For a while the name of their new street, Durango Road, gave us something to joke about. When I came home during winter break we'd whistle Wild West tunes and talk in cowboy accents about our home on the range.
What's Ma Kettle a-cookin' for supper?
I'd say.
I best be moseying
, Sam would say.
It's just about high noon at this semi-OK corral.

It was a three-bedroom, larger than what we were used to, and since Sam claimed the basement my mother left the last bedroom for me, certain that I'd come back home after graduation. She didn't know that, in high school, I'd counted down the days to the start of college, that I couldn't get to the dorms fast enough. Back then I went home as little as possible; summers, I took extra classes and worked retail on campus. Of course I had to go to grad school right away.

Sam drank his beer and said, “Everything looks the same here on Durango Road. Except we got ourselves some problems.” He spoke with a cowboy twang, but I couldn't keep it going. I was thinking about my mother and Hieu.

Then she was there, at the kitchen door, she and Ong Hai, and I felt as nervous as Sam seemed to be, setting the beer bottle down too quickly. Would she notice that we'd been in her room? Did she really have a stockpile of money extorted from my father's best friend?

“Hey, Sam!” Ong Hai called out, as though Sam had only been away for a semester at college.

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