Laura Ignalls Wilder and Asian Buffets

Pioneer Girl: A Novel, by Bich Minh Nguyen, (Penguin Books), 304 pages, release date 27 January, 2015 (paperback edition)

Pioneer Girl is a quick, engaging read. The central character, Lee, is the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants who have spent their lives in the US managing a variety of Asian restaurants across the midwest. Her father died when she was young, but her mother and grandfather continue in the restaurant business, fully expecting Lee and her brother Sam to make this their life’s work as well.

Lee has broken with family expectations and earned a PhD in Literature with a dissertation on Edith Wharton. Her brother has rebelled in another way, fleeing the family home and maintaining only minimal contact with his sister, mother, and grandfather. PhD in hand, Lee is unable to find a job in academia, so she returns for a temporary stint in the family home and restaurant, hoping this won’t become permanent.

Most of this is back story. The novel really begins when Lee decides to investigate a gold bar pin left at her Grandfather’s restaurant in Vietnam during the war years by a female reporter named Rose. The pin reminds Lee of one briefly described in one of Laura Ignalls Wilder’s novels and Rose was the name of Laura’s daughter who was a writer and journalist so….

Lee’s unlikely quest for the origin of the pin and the real story of Rose Wilder Lane is compulsive—for the reader, as well as for Lee. We travel the U.S. with her visiting archives and spots from Wilder history. This is a wonderful novel to read when you’re longing for something simultaneously contemporary and nostalgic. Most readers will have some memories of the Little House books (or at least the television series based on them), so one is on familiar territory even while pursuing literary mystery.

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