The BookBrowse Review

Published June 9, 2021

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The Mountains Sing
The Mountains Sing
by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

Paperback (16 Mar 2021), 368 pages.
Publisher: Algonquin Books
ISBN-13: 9781643751351

Winner of the 2020 BookBrowse Debut Award

The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multi-generational tale of the Trần family, set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War. "Both vast in scope and intimate in its telling ... Moving and riveting." - Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize

With the epic sweep of Min Jin Lee's Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing and the lyrical beauty of Vaddey Ratner's In the Shadow of the Banyan, The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multigenerational tale of the Trần family, set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War. Trần Diệu Lan, who was born in 1920, was forced to flee her family farm with her six children during the Land Reform as the Communist government rose in the North. Years later in Hà Nội, her young granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the Hồ Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that tore not just her beloved country, but her family apart.

Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Việt Nam, The Mountains Sing brings to life the human costs of this conflict from the point of view of the Vietnamese people themselves, while showing us the true power of kindness and hope.

The Mountains Sing is celebrated Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai's first novel in English.

From the Author

"My publisher at Algonquin Books forwarded me the news of my first book in English, The Mountains Sing, winning BookBrowse's Best Debut Award for 2020 and I sat there crying.

When I was growing up in Vietnam, as I labored on rice fields and sold things on streets, I escaped into books I had read and stories I made up in my mind, and dreamed of becoming a writer. Thank you so much for enabling my childhood dream to become a reality. Thank you for creating space on your bookshelf and in your heart for stories about Vietnamese people – stories which have been neglected, buried, or erased. BookBrowse's Debut Award shows me that kindness and compassion exists.

My sincere thanks to you, to the many BookBrowse subscribers who voted for a novel that comes from the faraway land of Vietnam, to BookBrowse publisher Davina Morgan-Witts, and to the BookBrowse team. May we read more about each other's experiences so that humans love humans more, so that one day there will be no war on earth."

-- Quế Mai

Pronunciation Guide

Hà Nội, 1972–1973

Grandma is holding my hand as we walk to school. The sun is a large egg yolk peeking through a row of tin-roofed houses. The sky is as blue as my mother's favorite shirt. I wonder where my mother is. Has she found my father?

I clutch my jacket's collar as the wind rips through the air, swirling up a dust cloud. Grandma bends, putting her handkerchief against my nose. My school bag dangles on her arm as she cups her palm against her face.

We resume walking as soon as the dust settles. I strain my ears but hear no bird. I search, but there isn't a single flower along our path. No grass around us, just piles of broken bricks and twisted metal.

"Guava, be careful." Grandma pulls me away from a bomb crater. She calls me by my nickname to guard me from evil spirits she believes hover above the earth, looking for beautiful children to kidnap. She said that my real name, Hương, which means "fragrance," would attract them.

"When you come home today, you'll get our favorite food, Guava," Grandma tells me."Phở noodle soup?" Happiness makes me skip a step.

"Yes... . The bomb raids have stopped me from cooking. But it's been quiet, so let's celebrate."

Before I can answer, a siren shatters our moments of peace. A female voice blares from a loudspeaker tethered to a tree: "Attention citizens! Attention citizens! American bombers are approaching Hà Nội. One hundred kilometers away."

"Ôi trời đất ơi!" Grandma cries for Heaven and Earth. She runs, pulling me along. Streams of people pour out of their homes, like ants from broken nests. Far away, from the top of the Hà Nội Opera House, sirens wail.

"Over there." Grandma rushes toward a bomb shelter dug into the road-side. She pulls up the heavy concrete lid.

"No room," a voice shouts out from down below. Inside the round pit just big enough for one person, a man half kneels, half stands. Muddy water rises to his chest.

Grandma hurries to close the lid. She pulls me toward another shelter.

"Attention citizens! Attention citizens! American bombers are approaching Hà Nội. Sixty kilometers away. Armed forces get ready to fight back." The female voice becomes more urgent. The sirens are deafening.

Shelter after shelter is full. People dart in front of us like birds with broken wings, abandoning bicycles, carts, shoulder bags. A small girl stands alone, screaming for her parents.

"Attention citizens! Attention citizens! American bombers are approaching Hà Nội. Thirty kilometers away."

Clumsy with fear, I trip and fall.

Grandma pulls me up. She throws my school bag to the roadside, bending down for me to jump onto her back. She runs, her hands wrapping around my legs.

Thundering noise approaches. Explosions ring from afar. I hold on to Grandma's shoulders with sweaty hands, burying my face into her body.

"Attention citizens! Attention citizens! More American bombers are approaching Hà Nội. One hundred kilometers away."

"Run to the school. They won't bomb the school," Grandma shouts to a group of women lugging young children in their arms and on their backs. At fifty-two years of age, Grandma is strong. She dashes past the women, catching up with those ahead of us. Bounced up and down, I press my face against her long, black hair that smells like my mother's. As long as I can inhale her scent, I will be safe.

"Hương, run with me." Grandma has squatted down in front of my school, panting. She pulls me into the schoolyard. Next to a classroom, she flings herself down a vacant shelter. As I slide down next to her, water rises to my waist, gripping me with icy hands. It's so cold. The beginning of winter.

Excerpted from The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai. Copyright © 2020 by Nguyen Phan Que Mai. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Download the complete book club kit which contains the author's letter to the reader, discussion questions, author's essay about her writing journey, a historical timeline, the Trần family tree, as well as a playlist of Vietnamese music.

Also recommended: 13 Questions With Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

  1. There are many major historical events featured in the novel. How much did you know about these events before you read The Mountains Sing? Did the story show you a new side to any events you were already familiar with?
  2. Many of the characters in The Mountains Sing experience terrible things, and some of them must make difficult choices. Each of them handles their experiences differently. The Sơn ca helps Hương on her journey. What other objects, mem-ories, people, or conversations help each character to endure and recover?
  3. How does Grandma Diệu Lan help her children after their return? What might her relationships with her children reveal about family relationships in Việt Nam?
  4. War stories are often told from a male perspective. In The Mountains Sing, Hương and Grandma Diệu Lan take turns narrating their stories. How might the novel differ if it had male narrators? Why do you think the author chose to have women and girls tell the story instead?
  5. Which character did you feel the most sympathetic toward? The least? Is that different from which character you like the most and least, and if so, why?
  6. "I was determined to sing on. I learned then that as long as I have my voice, I am still alive," says Grandma Diệu Lan. Give examples of music and poetry that are represented in the novel. How important do you think music and poetry are in the Vietnamese culture? How important are they in your own culture?
  7. In addition to descriptions of war and pain, The Mountains Sing features many descriptions of gorgeous landscapes, interesting city sights, and delicious foods. Were there any locations that you would like to visit or have visited? Any foods you would like to try or have tried?
  8. According to Hương, proverbs are the essence of Vietnamese wisdom, passed orally from one generation to the next, even before the written Vietnamese language existed. Two examples are Trong cái rủi có cái may (Good luck hides inside bad luck) and Ác giả ác báo (Cruelty dispensed, cruelty returned). Do these proverbs ring true for you? Were there other proverbs that resonated with you as particularly true or meaningful?
  9. In The Mountains Sing, Vietnamese names and words appear with their full diacritical marks. For Vietnamese speakers, these marks are necessary to interpret meaning : for example, the words ma, mả, má, mà, mạ, and mã all have separate meanings (ghost, grave, mother, but, young rice plant, and horse, respectively). Nonetheless, it is unusual for an American novel to include the marks. Did their inclusion affect your reading experience? How?
  10. Hương thinks that if people are willing to learn about other cultures, there will be no war on earth. Do you think Hương feels differently about America and American people because of her reading? What books have made your world bigger?
  11. Grandma says, "If our stories survive, we will not die, even when our bodies are no longer here on this earth." The Mountains Sing is inspired by some of the experiences of the author's family. What stories from your own family can be written into a novel? Do you know of any fictional stories that remind you of your own family story?
  12. Had you previously read other books from or about Việt Nam? How is the Việt Nam portrayed in The Mountains Sing similar to or different from the Việt Nam you already knew?


Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Algonquin Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

Here are some of the recent comments posted about The Mountains Sing.
You can read the full discussion here, and please do participate if you wish.
Be aware that this discussion will contain spoilers!

According to Huong, proverbs are the essence of Vietnamese wisdom. Did the proverbs resonate with you?
I really liked the proverbs. I felt they helped promote understanding of the culture of the Vietnamese people. - PKH

Dieu Lan believes that no matter the circumstances "no one has the right to take away the life of another human being." Do you agree with her statement? What's your take on forgiveness?
I do agree that "no one has the right to take the life of another human being." But there may be instances when killing cannot be avoided. This reminds me of the commandment "Thou shalt not..." In Hebrew, it actually reads "... - bettyt

How does Grandma Dieu Lan help her children after their return? What might her relationships with her children reveal about family relationships in Viet Nam?
After I finished this book, I took a long walk and ruminated on the strength of mother love. I just returned from a visit to 2 of my daughters who had babies within 2 days of each other. As I grow older, my mother love becomes stronger, not only ... - debra

How important do you think music and poetry are in the Vietnamese culture? How important are they in your own culture?
So very important and are really the history that is passed down and that is what Grandma Dieu Lan did. All cultures have a variation of this, but in this digital age much is being lost because who can preserve a text, a tweet, or a snapchat? ... - MimiJo

How is the Viet Nam portrayed in The Mountains Sing similar to or different from the Viet Nam you already knew?
I knew very little about the lives of the Vietnamese people throughout the war. This was an eye-opener on the suffering the people there encountered. - bettyt

How many knew that Laos was bombed during the VN war?
Many people who lived through that era and were old enough to be listening to news (and/or have friends and family drafted to fight there) heard the reports, but the geographical names did not always resonate as being a country ... - rebeccar

How might the novel differ if it had male narrators? Why do you think the author chose to have women and girls tell the story instead?
The women and girls are primarily the people staying behind. For people to truly understand what war means, it is important to see the devastation on innocent citizens. Think of nightly news stories in our own country and the shock we feel/ the... - rebeccar

How much did you know about the historical events depicted before you read The Mountains Sing? Did the story show you a new side to any events you were already familiar with?
Yes; I've been to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos and enjoyed the book. I wonder why you read it as a ‘simple narration’..... - Hulananni

Huong believes that, of her grandmother's children, the youngest was the luckiest, and emerged from the war OK. Do you agree with her? Why or why not?
Sang was seemingly not affected by the war--he had seemed to exist in a separate entity. Yet, I believe a part of him recognizes that the war had made an impact. However, this feeling might never really surface. - rosemaryk

Huong thinks that if people are willing to learn about other cultures, there will be no war on earth. Do you think Huong feels differently because of her reading? What books have made your world bigger?
I am always reading books about other cultures.I think this helps one recognize how alike we all are. - bettyt

In The Mountains Sing, Vietnamese names and words appear with their full diacritical marks. Did their inclusion affect your reading experience?
I am glad they were included but really wish I knew how they were pronounced. - bettyt

Overall, what do you think of The Mountains Sing? (no spoilers in this thread, please)
I was completely enthralled by this book. It was continually interesting--and I learned so much. I will be purchasing The Mountains Sing for a few wonderful friends. - rosemaryk

Reading The Mountain Sings while on vacation visiting my father who was in the Vietnam war was complicated. Did anyone else have a family member in the war?
My husband was in the Navy during the Vietnam war and was on a ship that was in Da Nang Harbor. He would not talk about the war and went to great lengths sometimes to avoid telling anyone about his time in Vietnam. This was a very difficult book ... - MimiJo

Sang says he and his comrades risked their lives so Viet Nam would be "free from exploiters and bourgeoisie." Do you think this is true? What would have been different if the US had never intervened?
Americans did not belong in this war. I have many clients who are proud Viet Nam vets and most are broken- mentally, physically, or both. And yet, even though I have compassion for them, I am mostly left with the feeling that they sacrificed so ... - debra

The characters pay homage to those they care about who’ve died. What did you think of these rituals? Do you or your family have rituals to remember those who you’ve lost?
Remembering their ancestors is important. In my own family, cleaning the graves where my relatives are buried is a long-held tradition. Taking flowers to those graves is also important. - djcminor

Were there any locations that you would like to visit or have visited? Any foods you would like to try or have tried?
Having visited Viet Nam, I thought I tasted everything. But, these rice cakes sound delicious and I don't remember eating them. - debra

What did you think of Wicked Ghost?
Wicked Ghost was one of the least sympathetic characters in the book but his actions did result in Mr. Hai becoming deeply involved with Huong's family, having decendents who were his opposites, and keeping the jewel from being permanently lost ... - bill

What do you think of the choices Huong made – what to take and what to leave? What items would you take with you if you knew you could only take so much with you?
I imagine Huong would have taken more mementos of her family if she'd known she wasn't coming back, since (as others have mentioned) family seemed so important to her culture. I was thinking about this, and in ... - kimk

What objects, memories, people, or conversations help each character to endure and recover? If you’ve experienced trauma, do you have similar things you cling to that help you?
I do not have happy memories from the stories told. They are mostly very sad and tragic. I am determined to make better stories for my grandchildren. This is the greatest gift I can give them. - debra

What stories from your own family could be written into a novel? Do you know of any fictional stories that remind you of your own family story?
We need to share more of our personal family stories so that it is understood what has happened in our lifetime. A hundred years from now, people will want to know how their family survived a pandemic and if any family members were victims. The ... - MimiJo

What's your opinion about sharing family history, especially with pre-teens? Should you be honest with children, especially about family tragedy?
Certainly agree with everything that has been said here, but also if not shared and comes as an absolute surprise there could be other consequences. - MimiJo

Which character did you feel the most sympathetic toward? The least? Is that different from which character you like the most and least?
As I grow older (now 71) and as life, now focused on our behavior during the pandemic, has shown expected and unexpected circumstances over the decades, I have discovered that we must be generous toward our fellow human beings. Life under ... - MHRussell

Which scene or scenes in the book did you find the most memorable, and why?
The walk Dieu Lan made leaving her children one by one brought the greatest sadness. As a parents I can't image having to make this terrible choice. My sadness was countered with hope based upon the strength of her character and determination to... - johnw

Which timeline did you enjoy the most?
I agree with you rosienick! The land reform was a tough to read concept and the suffering of Dieu Lan's family. Some villagers even tried defending the family, but it seemed to be mob mentality and it was all taken away and destroyed. It ... - ColoradoGirl

A vivid and poetic multi-generational saga, The Mountains Sing follows the experiences of a Vietnamese family through the 20th century.

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Voted 2020 Best Debut Award Winner by BookBrowse Subscribers

All 23 of our First Impressions reviewers for The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai rated the book 4 or 5 stars, with over half giving it 5 stars, resulting in an inspiring average rating of 4.6.

What the book is about:

This beautifully written historical novel tells the 20th-century Vietnamese history of conflict, famine and corruption through the lives of a resilient and loving grandmother, born in 1920, and her granddaughter, born in 1960, who long for a world without war. Their struggles to survive, and stay a family, portray the impact war can have for many generations (Lynn D).

Readers describe Nyugen's writing as beautiful and poetic...

This story is beautifully and compellingly told by Nguyễn Phan, whose family lived through Vietnam's 20th-century history, starting with the land reform, Communist rule and the Vietnam War (Margaret A). This is one of the best books I've read in a long time! The author Nguyễn Phan is a poet and it shows in her beautiful prose (Karen S). With power and poetry, Nguyễn Phan guided me onto lands and into cultures I had never before experienced. Her fresh imagery reflects a constant dependence on the earth for survival, passed down through generations of farmers (Ora J).

...and remark that the book is surprisingly engaging despite its painful subject matter.

It seems odd to note that a book about such painful events is "easy to read," but this poet, essayist and novelist tells her characters' story with clarity and beautiful language (Karen S). Nguyễn Phan gives us characters with depth and a storyline that is filled with action, insight and discovery (Molly K).

Some reviewers mention having gained a new perspective on the Vietnam War…

The story was an eye-opener for me, never having heard the Vietnam story from the point of view of the North Vietnamese. They struggled heroically to keep their way of life and their country whole in the face of incredibly bad odds forced on them by foreign powers (Liz D). As an American, I found this novel to be eye-opening about a country and people beyond just the "Vietnam War" I knew about. A full-bodied picture was presented, providing a depth of knowledge and emotion that was lacking in my previous thoughts of Vietnam (Kay D). well as a sense of hope.

I was especially awed by the strength, courage and intelligence of Tran Dieu Lan, the matriarch of the Tran family. She shares her story with her young granddaughter, Huong, whose father has not returned from the war and whose mother is traumatized by her own war experiences. There is no one in the family not touched by the evils of war. But they have such strong love for each other. The Mountains Sing is truly inspiring (Gloria F). The examples of respect and honor for ancestors, devotion to family and persistence in the face of incredible odds are lessons for all. The hope and love shine through in this emotionally fulfilling novel. I look forward to hearing more from Nguyễn Phan either in new books or translations of some of her previous works (Mary G).

Click here for how to pronounce the author's name.

Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers

New York Times
Stirring...Que Mai has said that she chose to write The Mountains Sing in English to gain the distance a second language provides — a distance necessary to approach a disturbing history calmly. But writing in English also allows her to present to an audience in the United States a moving portrait of its former enemy, the North Vietnamese. Through her depiction of sympathetic characters suffering under a repressive regime, Que Mai offers us in The Mountains Sing a novel that, in more than one sense, remedies history.

Nguy?n Phan Qu? Mai has created a luminous, complex family narrative that spans nearly a century of Vietnamese history...The Mountains Sing affirms the individual's right to think, read, and act according to a code of intuitive civility, borne out of Vietnam's fertile and compassionate cultural heritage.

Minneapolis Star Tribune
At times, because of the number of characters, fast narrative pace and alternating points of view that go back-and-forth in time, it can be hard to keep track of what is happening when...However, Nguyen’s poetic descriptions and deep affection for her characters allow the reader to feel for the Tran family’s many vicissitudes.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A richly imagined story of severed bonds amid conflict.

Library Journal (starred review)
Recalling Min Jin Lee and Lisa See, Nguyen displays a lush and captivating storyteller's gift as she effortlessly transports readers to another world, leaving them wishing for more.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Nguyen brilliantly explores the boundary between what a writer shares with the world and what remains between family. This brilliant, unsparing love letter to Vietnam will move readers.

Author Blurb Doreen Baingana, author of Tropical Fish: Stories out of Entebbe
A poignant and vivid portrayal of a brutal slice of Vietnamese history from a perspective that is so rarely heard abroad: that of the Vietnamese themselves. We are starkly reminded of how those wars – and wars everywhere – wash over and drown both the guilty and innocent alike.

Author Blurb Sara Maitland, author of Daughter of Jerusalem, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award
The structure is clever, the writing often evocative, the characters convincing and very touching and the whole narrative deeply engaging. And this is a first novel! Impressive.

Author Blurb Rick Simonson, Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle
Deep human bonds of family, place, and memory are written of in ways that are often heartbreaking, but show the strength and persistence of those ties. This is a book that glows with spirit and those larger life forces that include love. I look forward to the day I can put this book in readers' hands.

Author Blurb Ocean Vuong, MacArthur award winner and author of On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
A sweeping story that positions Vietnamese life within the rich and luminous history of national epics like The Tale of Kieu and the Iliad. Expansive in scope and feeling, The Mountains Sing is a feat of hope, an unflinchingly felt inquiry into the past, with the courageous storytelling of the present.

Author Blurb Thanhhà Lai, National Book Award-winning author of Inside Out & Back Again and Butterfly Yellow
Nguyen Phan Que Mai's sweeping tale proves on every page that despite war-time tragedies and numbing ugliness, the human desire to forgive and thrive soars as high as the mountains. An essential read for Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans searching to understand their grandparents and parents who lived through the war in Viet Nam.

Author Blurb Karl Marlantes, bestselling author of Matterhorn, What It's Like to Go to War, and Deep River
Good literature frees us from being trapped in our own skins by allowing us to identify with characters and see the world through their eyes. Reading this novel, I was moved by Nguyen Phan Que Mai's beautiful, even poetic, depictions of enduring courage. I came away with a deeper understanding of the war in which I fought.

Author Blurb Thi Bui, author of The Best We Could Do
Que Mai tells the story of the war that tore apart Viet Nam, and of the generation lost to the war, by braiding around it two beautiful strands told by the older and younger generations of a family. This book is an act of love, compassion, and ultimately healing, and very much needed by all who survived the war.

Author Blurb Larry Heinemann, author of Paco's Story, winner of the National Book Award
Nguyen Phan Que Mai has written a wonderful, intricate story of the lives of a Vietnamese family trying to make it through generations of war. The Mountains Sing is a beautiful story of the simple challenge of keeping a family together and the courage of perseverance. It is told with the sureness of a master storyteller with a poet's spirit. A large and complicated story, marvelous to read.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Betty Taylor
Beautifully written saga
It seems almost sacrilegious to say this is a beautifully written book while the content is about two violent periods of Vietnam’s history. Even though surrounded by violence, respectfulness and gentleness could still be found among the people of Vietnam. This is a story of human endurance, family, loyalty, hope, and the strength of the women.

“If our stories survive, we will not die, even when our bodies are no longer here on earth.” Thus, this story follows two timelines, one of Tran Dieu Lan as a young woman during the time of the Land Reform movement of the mid-twentieth century, and the other is told from the perspective of Guava, Tran Dieu Lan’s granddaughter after the Vietnamese War that involved the US soldiers.

While I was mostly untouched by the Vietnam war, many around me were not. While I am aware of the trauma the returning American soldiers suffered, I never really thought about the Vietnamese soldiers. It was interesting reading about the division of North and South Vietnam and the impact it had on the people there. The timeline involving the Land Reform reminded me of the book “In the Shadow of the Banyan” which I enjoyed immensely.

The author’s short essay at the end of the book was very informational. I am so impressed that she wrote this book while learning the English language!

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Rosemary
To Make the Mountains Sing
Nguyen Phan Que Mai's novel, The Mountains Sing, is a masterful work: the writing is smooth, educational, and full of emotion.

Although I was in college during the Vietnam War, I have to say that I knew very little about it. Fellow students were in an uproar, and members of the Chicago Seven were our new celebrities.

Mai's book filled in multiple gaps in my background. She provides the political facts and the human information suffered by so many. I was completely enthralled with the story.

Although many painful episodes were described, I could not ever stop reading. Mai's writing was so interesting, so factual, and the story she told was completely gripping.

The intensely brave grandmother was one to whom tribute was owed; what a role model!

At times, I did not necessarily want too many good things to happen (I do not like sweet stories); still I was glad that they occasionally did occur.

I highly recommend this book--most of us do not know enough about the Vietnam saga. This book is first-rate!

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Lynne Lambert
The Human Side of War
Viet Nam is a country that knows too well about the subjugation of foreign powers and war. The French, Japanese, and Americans, as well as political factions within their own borders have all taken a toll on the Vietnamese people. The novel The Mountains Sing by Nguyan Phan Que Mai looks at all of these conflicts on a human scale. The novel traces the effects on one family of Japanese and French subjugation, the Viet Nam War, the Land Reform initiated by the Communists and the famine known as The Great Hunger. It lovingly illustrates the relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter , the love between parents and children, between siblings and young lovers. The background is exotic and fragrant, tumultuous and often violent. The trials and tribulations of the Lan family are a testament to determination, courage, family, friendship and an homage to the importance of a common humanity. Early in the novel, the narrator, Huang, sees a downed American pilot being paraded and attacked as a POW. Her thoughts reflect the tone of the novel. “As the crowd followed him, shouting and screaming, I shuddered, wondering what would happen to my parents if they faced their enemy.” All of the characters, without exception, face hard choices and extreme consequences. Somehow, they manage to hold on to their humanity and hope. Not everyone is rewarded for their sacrifices and moral compass. However, for those who are, sharing their journeys makes the novel not only satisfying but educational and uplifting. Based on stories of her own family, the author reminds us, “If our stories survive, we will not die.”

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Babs
Unforgettable characters and lyrical prose!
I was overcome with emotion at how profoundly moving I found The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai. Lyrical prose filled with images that will forever change how I view lives so vastly different than my own. I always viewed the tragedy of the Vietnam war through the lens of American losses...until now. The compelling multi-generational story of the Tran family is beautifully written with two unforgettable heroines, Huong Tran and her grandmother Died Lan and spans from 1920-1970's. I highly recommend what has turned out to be my favorite read in 2020. Actually, I am getting ready to reread so I can facilitate this novel in our Zoom book club in November.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Mary B. (St Paul, MN)
The Mountains Sing
Beautifully written, but heart wrenching saga of a Vietnamese family through several generations. The story touches on human's inhumanity to others, but also the enduring hope and resiliency of family and friends. Nguy?n Phan's story is about the history of the Vietnamese people and their struggles through very turbulent times. Nguy?n Phan's weaves the story through several people and periods of time and it flows beautifully. I highly recommend the book!

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by M Kassapa
The Vietnam War in Full View
This gorgeously written novel explores four generations of a Vietnamese family impacted by the Vietnam War. Mai focuses on all aspects of policy as well as repercussions of this war: Land Reform, the war, the destruction, death, anger, grief, loss of life and limb, loss of confidence and sanity. We all also are invited to experience the strength of family, the generosity, kindness, resilience, and forgiveness. The book is a kaleidoscope of the earthquake that is war, touching on the intense pain, poverty, and finding personal redemption in the recognition of the toll that survival sometimes costs.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Liz D. (East Falmouth, MA)
The Mountains Sing
Nguyen Phan Que Mai's book The Mountains Sing is a story that sings. The story of the Tran family who live in the turbulent era of change in North Viet Nam between the 1940s to present day. Told by Tran Dieu Lan to her granddaughter Huong the story spans the years beginning with the Great Hunger, a time of severe famine, the Communist Land Reform, where the family lost their land holdings, to the Viet Nam War and its aftermath. Through all this strife Tran Dieu Lan fights valorously to be the rock keeping her family together.

The story was an eyeopener for me never having heard the Viet Nam story from the point of view of the North Vietnamese. They struggled heroically to keep their way of life and their country whole in the face of incredibly bad odds forced on them by foreign powers.

The Tran family's courage and resilience is breathtaking and makes one appreciate the freedoms we so much for granted. The book is one I will happily read again for the storytelling, the language and the unforgettable characters. Wonderful Book!

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Travel Books and Movies
Prepare Yourself for this Must Read
I have spent time in Vietnam (both North and South). I knew Vietnam had a long storied past. I knew there were challenges in Vietnam's history I hadn't been taught in school. I knew the Vietnamese were strong people.

So, I thought I was ready for this book...I wasn't.

The Mountains Sing is a heart-wrenching novel tracing a portion of Vietnam's history through the stories of Dieu Lan, her granddaughter, Huong (called Guava), and their families. (Fortunately, there's a family tree in the front to help track family members as you read.)

Despite the heavy topics, it's a fast read--the characters are well-developed and you care about their stories. (I finished the book in two sittings--mostly because I needed to take a mental break.)

Vietnam's history comes to life through the personal stories--stories of struggle through the Great Hunger, Land Reform, what Westerners know as the Vietnam War, and other moments in Vietnam's past. Scenery--small villages, mountains, jungles, and big cities--are easily envisioned through the descriptions. And cultural lessons are sprinkled throughout--proverbs, superstitions, meanings of Vietnamese words and names.

I finished this book a few days ago and haven't quite been able to let it go. The Mountains Sing is a meaningful piece of historical fiction--one that is meant to be shared, discussed, and learned from.


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Land Reforms in North Vietnam (1953-1956)

The humiliation of a landlord during North Vietnam's land reform program. The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế is set against the backdrop of several decades in Northern Vietnam, including the period from 1945 to 1976 when it was an independent state known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). This was a time of extraordinary hardship brought about by factors related to shifts in political power and the struggle for Vietnamese self-governance, with a significant one of these factors being the land reform movement. Land reform measures in North Vietnam were initiated in 1953 by Ho Chi Minh, leader of the Lao Dong, the Vietnamese Workers' Party of the DRV, and lasted until 1956. The ideology of the Lao Dong was based on facets of Chinese communism, as well as Soviet Marxism and Leninism. Their plan for land reform was modeled after similar plans in China and the Soviet Union, and aimed to seize private property and wealth from landowners to redistribute it among the peasant class before moving towards a broader model of collective farming.

The land reforms were carried out by cadres from the party who would typically arrive in a village and investigate the working conditions and land ownership situation there. It was their goal to identify those who profited off the labor of others, who they would then classify as dia chu, or "landlords." Landlords' land and property were taken from them and redistributed to the working poor of the village. Another classification was reserved for landlords who were considered to have committed certain cruelties against others, such as murder and rape, and those given this classification were often publicly beaten or executed.

Journalists and historians have disagreed significantly on how many North Vietnamese people were likely killed during the reforms. War correspondent Bernard Fall estimated that 50,000 were executed (with "at least twice as many" put in forced labor camps), and this number was widely circulated. Some have suggested that the numbers were even higher than this. Hoang Van Chi, a Vietnamese writer who has been heavily cited regarding the land reforms, made a reference to five percent of the population having been executed (which would have been over 500,000 people), albeit after indicating that no one had sufficient information to say how many deaths there had been. This statistic was later used by the Nixon administration to justify continued U.S. military presence in Vietnam. Journalist Gareth Porter criticized these higher estimates, and put forth a much lower estimate of 800 to 2,500. Historian Edwin Moïse made an estimation both higher than Porter's but lower than some of the earlier claims, stating that the executions were "probably in the rough order of 5,000 and almost certainly between 3,000 and 15,000."

Regardless of the exact number of deaths, it has been widely accepted and admitted that the Lao Dong made errors in their attempts to identify the population by class. In 1956, Ho Chi Minh apologized for the severity of the reforms, saying, "because I lacked a spirit of democracy, I didn't listen and didn't see."

While significant land redistribution was carried out (37 percent of arable land in the northern provinces was split between 2.1 million families), this wasn't the end of the reforms. The government next implemented a plan for collectivized farming, thereby taking the land away from families and creating a bureaucratic system of labor. This new structure, involving cooperatives that paid workers based on a points system, ultimately failed to improve agriculture production and in fact caused it to decline, eventually causing serious food shortages.

While the land reform campaign has often been regarded as a sensitive and taboo subject in Vietnamese history, some authors have addressed it openly. Besides The Mountains Sing, which is the English-language debut from Nguyễn Phan Quế, a significant number of works of Vietnamese-language literature deal with the reforms. For example, Vu Bao's 1957 novel Sap Cuoi (About to Marry) tells the story of a couple, Xuan and Buoi, whose wedding and relationship are disrupted by the land reform in their village when Buoi's family is labeled as part of the landowning class. A more recent example is the 1992 novel Lao Kho (The Old Kho) by Ta Duy Anh, which shows events through the experiences of an elderly peasant character, Lao Kho, who lets himself be swayed by government rhetoric to the detriment of those around him.

Most of the Vietnamese words in this article are normally written with accents to indicate tone, including the author's name. However, due to the challenges of displaying accents in some browsers, we have not included them.

Photo: The humiliation of a landlord during North Vietnam's land reform program. Source: Alpha History.

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