The Mountains Sing by Que Mai Phan Nguyen is a hard book to read. It is a novel filled with the horrors of war, too many wars. The war Americans called the Vietnam War and which created much division among American citizens was called in Vietnam the Resistance War Against America to Save the Nation. Seeing the two names from two perspectives, American and Vietnamese alerts the readers to the differences in the way people viewed the war.
The Mountains Sing, Nguyen’s first novel written in English, depicts the atrocities of war and its aftermath on a family. Dieu Lan, 58 when the story opens, is a mother of six and grandmother to Huong, age 12, for whom she is caring. The story opens in November of 1972. Dieu Lan and Huong, nicknamed Guava, escape from their village to the mountains shortly before American bombers reduce the village to rubble.
While the story opens in 1972 and moves forward with Dieu Lan and Huong as the main characters, readers also learn about the grandmother’s past and the horrors she experiences when Japanese soldiers invade her homeland and then when Communists take over. So readers discover the whole story told in two parts.
Readers cannot help but feel strongly for Dieu Lan and Huong as well as Dieu Lan’s now adult children. They have all experienced terrible deprivation, hunger, homelessness, separation, and deaths.
Nguyen portrays the meanness of other people when the Communist take over and treat Dieu Lan as a wicked landlord and thus someone to be killed with the land distributed among the villagers. The soldiers will not listen to reason even when long-time employees stand up for Dieu Lan and her brother, praising them as kind, generous landlords. Dieu Lan’s husband and brother are murdered. To save herself and her children, Dieu Lan flees in the dark of night with nothing but the clothes on their backs—no money at all, no food, no extra clothing.
They are reduced to begging and being beaten for begging. Overcoming the hardship of being homeless and without resources means Dieu Lan must call upon every ounce of strength she has.
Readers learn of the family’s three generations and what each person had to do to survive. Huong is the narrator who begins as a naïve twelve-year-old who learns over time about her grandmother’s struggles along with the difficulties her mother and her siblings had to overcome to live and return to the family.
Not all the sons return from the war and Uncle Dat returns minus both legs. Conflicts arise among Huong’s mother, aunt, and uncles because they hold differing viewpoints about the grandmother’s actions both from their childhood and currently; they also hold very different political views.
Que Mai Phan Nguyen is a talented writer who is also a poet. She was born in 1973 in Vietnam, so she grew up seeing the devastating effects of the war. She has received many awards for her writing in both poetry and fiction, all well-deserved.
Read The Mountains Sing to understand the Vietnam War from the perspective of those living in the country at the time. My reading of literature that has come out of the Vietnam War has been limited: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason. Obviously, very limited.
Nguyen maintains an extensive Web site at this link: http://www.nguyenphanquemai.com/page/the-mountains-sing.html. Nguyen spoke in Jakarta, Indonesia, where she lives as the keynote speaker on UN Day at the Jakarta Intercultural School, 23 Feb. 2020: https://youtu.be/6EYIm4HxLAg. She is a dynamic speaker.