The Mountains Sing
By Nguyen Phan Que Mai
Read Aug 2020
Que Mai was born in northern Vietnam in 1973 in the midst of the war known globally as the Vietnam War and called the Resistance War Against America to Save the Nation by the government of Northern Vietnam. She has authored 11 books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. The Mountains Sing is her first book written in English. She draws upon her family’s history and her extensive research to tell the story of the Tran family of Nghe An Province in north central Vietnam. She brings to the reader the experiences of this family as it lives through a long period of great turmoil which left this reader with a new perspective of the people of this area and the struggles they have endured.
The reader meets Grandma Dieu Lan (born 1920 to Mr and Mrs Tran) and granddaughter Huong (born 1960 to Grandma’s daughter Ngoc and her husband) in 1972 in Ha Noi where Grandma is a school teacher and Huong a student. They are anxiously awaiting the war to be over and for Grandma’s six children and families to be reunited and returned to them. While Grandma and Huong are hiding in a cave to shelter from the Dec 18, 1972 major extended bombing of Ha Noi, Grandma begins telling Huong the story of her family starting in 1930. Her stories which, progress in time from 1930, alternate with Huong’s narration of the family’s story moving forward from that day in the cave.
Grandma Dieu Lan was born into a land owning farming family. All the members of the family worked taking care of animals and working in the field. She marries, begins having a family, and is happy. But change is underway. She tells Huong about the family trials during the Japanese occupation, the Great Famine, and the Viet Minh’s execution of the Land Reform. During the Land Reform, her family is torn apart and then works to recover itself. The Vietnam War disperses the family again as the sons are drafted to fight with the Viet Minh and Huong’s mother, a doctor, leaves to find her husband. Huong’s narration covers the period of the war through letters and diaries and discussions with her mother and uncles after they return from the war. Her narration also describes her family’s post-war period through 1980 as they work to find a new normalcy in the newly united county under communist rule.
The author makes several choices that enables the reader’s engagement and gives the reader a sense of the family’s culture. As with many families with six children, life paths the children take, freely chosen or not, can cause substantial family conflict and this is true for Grandma’s children. Que Mai sprinkles the text with Vietnamese words and uses a variety of approaches to provide their definition. Several characters, and in particular Grandma Dieu Lan, use proverbs to express their feelings—and to help buoy spirits in difficult times.
Que Mai uses her book to make clear that the Vietnamese people are more than some of the impressions that have been suggested—poor, illiterate farmers. Grandma Dieu Lan’s farming parents believed in education—they hired a tutor for her brother AND her. She becomes a teacher. Her children are educated and Huong attends school and wins a place at a premier high school. She gives Huong books as presents including a Vietnamese translation of “Little House on the Prairie”. This book allows Huong to understand that Americans, who have pledged to bomb her people into submission, also work hard and love their family. Both Huong and an uncle see young American soldiers taken prisoner or killed by the Viet Minh army and wonder about the humanity of these American solider and how their family members would be treated if they were prisoner of the American enemy. Huong wonders at one point if people read more about each other if they would find other ways to solve their problems besides war.
Que Mai uses Huong’s description of her journaling after an uncle’s death to explicitly show some of her themes regarding war: “I wrote for Grandma, who’d hoped for the fire of war to be extinguished, only for its embers to keep burning her. I wrote for my uncles, my aunt, and my parents, who were helpless in the fight of brother against brother, and whose war went on, regardless of whether they were alive or dead.” But her book covers more than the Vietnam War and introduces the reader to a broader history of the struggles of these people who have been occupied by foreigners for centuries and whose struggles continued after their expulsion. In the final chapter, Huong and her family are at Grandma’s grave. Huong tells us she has converted Grandma’s stories into a manuscript which she brings to the grave. She says “Grandma once told me that the challenges faced by the Vietnamese people throughout history are as tall as the tallest mountain. I have stood far enough away to see the mountaintops, yet close enough to witness how Grandma became the tallest mountain herself: always strong, always protecting us.”
This remarkable book will engage the reader’s brain and your heart and give the reader a new perspective on this time and these people and on the concept of the usefulness of war in general.