Hillmer, a professor of American history and director of the Hmong Oral History Project at Concordia University in St. Paul, delves into U.S. military motivations and strategies in Laos during the Vietnam War -- and the clandestine partnership between U.S. and Hmong forces -- with academic muscle and curiosity. But his book shines most when chronicling the small, everyday details of war and immigration: A girl abandons her noisy little brother in the jungle so he won't call attention to her whereabouts, a group of girls team up to successfully break up a Communist roadblock, knowing that such action by their male counterparts would elicit murder from the Communist guards, pets are killed as people flee so Communist soldiers invading a Hmong settlement in Laos won't torture or consume them.
Hillmer spent more than seven years conducting more than 220 interviews with sources ranging from former U.S. military personnel, to aid workers, to Hmong-Americans and Hmong-Australians, to the controversial Gen. Vang Pao, who led Hmong forces against the Communists. Although the start of Hillmer's book reads a bit like a textbook, it quickly picks up speed as the historical narrative unfolds from the mouths of those who experienced it firsthand. The personal accounts add depth, drama and humanity to events in history that remain inextricably linked to the Hmong identity and experience.
The author is good at abstaining from over- romanticizing the Hmong, noting that other minority groups also aligned with U.S. interests and that many Hmong also fought on behalf of the Communists. He trains a critical eye on information by examining details from multiple perspectives, from possibly inflated Hmong fatality numbers to the unresolved debate about the existence or lack thereof of Agent Orange.
The book ends a bit abruptly without the emotional or narrative punch that the preceding chapters deserve, and parts of the epilogue teeter dangerously close to boosterism for the Hmong community, upsetting the careful balance preserved throughout much of the book.
Hillmer's book succeeds thanks to the breadth and depth of his interview subjects and his fluid interweaving of the personal with the academic. It's not simply another retelling of an old story; it reads like a new, important chapter of a people's complicated history.
Chao Xiong is an enterprise reporter for the Star Tribune. He is at 612-673-4391.