Libby Hellman is known for her slightly gritty mysteries set in Chicago, often reaching back into the past. Her first novel, An Eye for Murder (2002) looked back to the holocaust; she’s ventured to Cuba, to the 60’s in the United States, to WWII, and to Iran. This is her first novel, however, that’s straight up history. She sets it in Vietnam in 1968, during the war. As someone who came of age in the late 70’s, the Vietnam War wasn’t history. It was news. It was classmates wearing POW and MIA bracelets. It was on TV and in the newspapers almost every day.
In 2020, the war, which began with an infusion of “advisors” under President Kennedy and ended in 1975 under President Ford, is now history. The story Hellman is telling is historical. In 1968, her two main characters, sisters Tam and Mai, see their family and village wiped out. They are young but fierce and they steal a sampan and head to Saigon. To Tam, it seems to make sense, as US soldiers are headed to Cambodia, not Saigon.
The sisters ultimately get a ride and a bit of a hand and start work in a restaurant, living in a tent in a refugee camp on the edge of town. The two sisters have different ideas about their futures. Mai, the younger, wants a softer, more feminine life. She’s interested in glamor, clothes, and men. Tam is the scholar of the family; she’d wanted to study botany before the war stole her family. She’s more serious and more interested in politics.
When Mai decides to take a job as a “bar hostess” chatting up American soldiers and convincing them to order more drinks, her sister says she will suffer when the war is over for consorting with the enemy. Tam goes the other way. She’s recruited by the Viet Cong and trains to work as a driver, delivering supplies to the vast network of tunnels known as the Ho Chi Minh trail.
The scenes where Tam learns to navigate the roads and jungles in her truck at night, quickly delivering supplies, reminded me of every book I’ve ever read about resistance fighters in France during WWII. In WWII we were on the right side; in Vietnam, we weren’t. The U.S. was in a far away place trying to change a way of government, while bombing and pillaging their country, leaving the fields razed and ruined by Agent Orange. While I knew this intellectually, Hellman’s novel brought it home to me in an emotionally resonant way that made me think about it differently.
In creating Mai and Tam, yes, they are opposites and could have easily been cardboard figures, but as Hellman writes about their lives and follows their hardships and the way they change and mature as they age, they both become more shaded and more nuanced. The narrative is propulsive (I read this in about a day and a half), and so are the characters. I cared about them and wanted to know what was going to happen to them.
Neither woman ever gets a chance to take a breath. They are hardly able to process the loss of their family, much less the other events that overtake them throughout the novel. Hellman follows them to the end of the war and their eventual reunion (not a spoiler, it’s on the back cover). While their lives race onward, we as readers can think about them and consider what’s happening to them from the perspective of history. The way the two sisters’ fates and fortunes wax and wane and the ultimate resolution of the book is heartbreaking, memorable, and has real strength. This is a wonderful story as well as a powerful history lesson. It can be read either – or both – of those ways.