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The Mountains Sing

by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai X
The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai
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    Mar 2020, 352 pages

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Claire M. (Sarasota, FL)

The War that No One Won
The American War in Viet Nam was devastating to a country that had been fighting for independence for almost ever. Nguyen Phan Que Mai tells the story of the war through the eyes of one family and in doing so she speaks for what it was like in the middle and the North, which was then falling to communist ideology. The experience in the South was different and much of the fighting was there. The Tran family had seen most of their men moved south to fight while they were being evicted from their home during the Land Reform and other acts under the new communist regime. But the real story here is the toughness and resilience of a people who had been forever colonialized or fighting for independence. Nguyen takes a broad stroke, describing how as Grandma relentlessly pushes north on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the dead bodies, the gangs of men she encounters, the starvation, the people who are indoctrinated ignore her because she is a capitalist trader, finally gets enough money and goes to reclaim each of her children whom she had to abandon on the journey. The stories of each shed light on what even the youngest endured to survive. Much of Grandma's story is told to her granddaughter Huong in the years near the war's end as some of the surviving children find their way home to mama.

I would recommend this book to be read in book clubs to open up discussion of what most Americans don't know about this war. Yes, it claimed 58,500 American soldiers, another 20,000 maimed and added Agent Orange and PTSD to our language; but it cost great division in this country and very little if any information about what the Vietnamese suffered and the extraordinary numbers of them killed and maimed.
Darlene G. (Allegany, NY)

Epic Perseverance
This book grew on me as I read. What I appreciated most about it was its success at reflecting the complexities (and horrors without gratuitous violence) of war and the effects that had on a specific family. I like that this was told from a Vietnamese viewpoint and over many decades, and I appreciated learning more about the history and the culture. There were times when I felt that the story was a little forced to ensure multiple dimensions of the situation were depicted, still it was a good and interesting read. I can easily imagine the grandmother as a real person; she did what she needed to do to keep her family alive.
Karen S. (Allston, MA)

Family and the civil war in Vietnam
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. Nguyen Phan Qu Mai protects the reader from the pain of her story more than some authors do when telling the story of civil war and family losses, as she focuses more on human resilience and kindness in the face of brutality.

I found one passage in the middle of the book that seemed to capture the intent of this novel as it blended the stories of a family and a country. Dieu Lan is telling her granddaughter, Huong, more family history: "We're forbidden to talk about the events that relate to past mistakes or the wrongdoing of those in power, for they give themselves the right to rewrite history. But you're old enough to know that history will write itself in people's memories, and as long as those memories live on, we can have faith that we can do better."

It was refreshing to read about the Vietnam war in a story where the Americans were a relatively minor backdrop to personal stories of a family torn apart by the civil war in Vietnam. The story covers a relatively long time span, providing a rich historical context. Read if you are interested in Vietnam from a Vietnamese writer's perspective.
Susanna K. (Oro Valley, US)

Historical
This heartwarming story was told by a grandmother and granddaughter. Encompassing 4 generations enduring the years of the Viet Nam crisis and the division between the North and South made living unbearable if not impossible. Through determination, faith and grandmother’s soothing songs they continued to persevere. At first it was bit confusing as the chapters jumped back and forth through the years. However once immersed in their lives the reader walked in their footsteps with love, hope and prayer.
Kay D. (Strongsville, OH)

Vietnam: A View from Inside
A sweeping novel covering most of the 20th century in the tiny country of Vietnam and its people who have endured a multitude of challenges. From the perspective of one family, a shared story from a Grandmother to her granddaughter brings to light the significant impact of the wars and other elements that targeted the country and its people.

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. I highly recommend this novel.
Randi H. (Bronx, NY)

Engrossing family tale
Since visiting Vietnam prior to the U.S. establishing diplomatic relations with the country, I have been drawn to books that are set in the country. So I was quite excited to read The Mountains Sing. I very much enjoyed this look at the history of Vietnam in the 20th century, as told through the experiences of a girl and her grandmother. I found the perspectives of this North Vietnamese family especially fascinating, as so much of the literature has a pro-Western bent. My only quibble with the book was the alternating viewpoint chapters. I found it distracting for the first half of the book. I was unable to totally lose myself in the story when I had to figure out with each chapter what was going on and who the characters were again.

Nonetheless, I would absolutely recommend this book. Especially now, as both the U.S. and much of the world seem to be slipping into divisiveness, it's so important to remember another time in our past when such divisiveness reigned.
Jane D. (Cincinnati, OH)

Lessons from Viet Nam
" I realized war is monstrous - if it didn't kill those it touched, it took away a piece of their souls, so they could never be whole again "

The writing in this book is sometimes beautiful and often brutal as it reveals a history of Tran family in Vietnam, giving the reader a vivid account of what it was like to live through the Land Reforms of the Communist party, the Vietnam War and its aftermath. The very strong women characters end up sacrificing everything including giving up their children, their dreams. their homes and livelihoods to try and keep their family together during the years when their country was torn apart and everything they knew was changing. It is a story of strong family love, perseverance, bravery and extraordinary acts of kindness by complete strangers.

This novel will break your heart but at the end it is an amazing story of endurance and you come away with an understanding of what it was like for those living in Vietnam during the war.

An interesting and emotional read although you have to pay attention as the author chose to go back and forth every chapter from the 1940s and 50s to the years after the war. It takes a little concentration to keep all the characters and time lines straight but it is worth the effort.
Judy K. (Montgomery, TX)

A new perspective
I grew up in the sixties so many of my classmates were drafted into the Vietnam war. Many died in those jungles, boys that I knew. All these years later, I still had an instant, knee-jerk, bitter taste for all things related to that war that "wasn't a war". Why I even chose to read this book is a mystery to my very own self. I think, perhaps, I was ready to try and understand a new perspective, that in my 70's, I've finally learned that war is abominable for both sides. The Mountains Sing relives the horror, the tragedy and the human spirit to survive with what seems like first-hand knowledge. Nguyen Phan Que Mai tells the story of one family as they try to survive not only the war with America but the civil war after. The story is heart-breaking but, at the end, makes us believe that redemption and forgiveness are the only way forward. Maybe we all need to hear the rest of the story.
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