When the American war machine withdrew from Vietnam, it left a lot behind. It left a military debacle so mismanaged it became a common metaphor for disaster. It left years of fighting that saw tens of thousands of servicemen killed, and millions more Vietnamese citizens. The new novel "Dust Child" shifts the focus away from the battlefield, looking instead at what was lost on a much more intimate scale.
Experts estimate that American soldiers left behind more than 20,000 of their children — born to Vietnamese women who lived as laborers or sex workers near military bases. Some veterans came back for their kids, but most did not. In Vietnam, these children were often scorned — living embodiments of the cataclysm that reshaped Vietnamese society. They were called Amerasians, or worse, cast aside and labeled "the dust of life."
It's a heavy topic. But author Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai works wonders taking readers deep inside this undercovered part of the war's history. Born and raised in Vietnam, she is coming off the success of her acclaimed 2020 novel, "The Mountains Sing," which painted a generational portrait of wartime life from the perspective of women and children.
"Dust Child" is a wonderful exercise in point-of-view storytelling. It follows three main characters, alternating between two periods in Vietnam: the war years and the present day. In 1969, Trang and her sister find themselves working as "bar girls" in Saigon, hoping to earn money to support their poor, ailing parents.
Through Trang, the novel details how a sex worker industry sprang up around the U.S. military presence, one that easily coaxed young women into its clutches. Jumping to modern-day Vietnam, the novel simultaneously tells the story of Phong, a 30-something Amerasian who desperately wants to find his American father in order to give his wife and children a better life in the United States.
These are people whose circumstances have forced them to live and survive from one fragile moment to the next. Thrown into the mix is a third protagonist, Dan, a white American veteran who's recently traveled back to Vietnam to find out what happened to his lover and their child.
Quế Mai's ability to plunge the reader into the perspective of a different character with each new chapter transforms "Dust Child" into a page-turner. The connections between the story's main players are slowly revealed, building to a powerful conclusion.
Quế Mai conducted years of research on the Amerasian dilemma before writing "Dust Child." Her mission here, it seems, is to acknowledge the shame and the anger of these characters. To simply listen to them. To understand the foundations of generational trauma. The women in this book — who were "nothing but firewood on the furnace of wars" — and their children are literally screaming for phantom American fathers to accept accountability. It's not a spoiler to say that for many, that quest for accountability is profoundly unattainable.
But here, at the very least, Quế Mai has given these characters — and the real people they represent — a bold voice. It's well worth listening to.
Tom Horgen is Senior Manager of Audience Strategy for the Star Tribune.
By: Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai.
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 352 pages, $28.